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The Idea of the Senate

Howard Baker, 1998

Literally an offspring of Capitol Hill, Howard Baker was the son of one member of Congress, the stepson of another, and the son-in-law of yet another—and he later married one of his senatorial colleagues. Senator Baker had a unique institutional perspective that enabled him to understand how the Senate worked and facilitated his leadership of Senate Republicans from 1977 to 1985, in both the minority and the majority. .

Born in Huntsville, Tennessee, on November 15, 1925, he was named for his father, Howard Henry Baker, who practiced law and published a weekly newspaper. When Howard Baker, Jr., was four years old his father was elected to the state house of representatives. From then on there were countless campaigns as his father ran for various offices as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic state, losing races for governor in 1938 and U.S. senator in 1940, but winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1950. His mother had died when Howard was eight, and his father married Irene Bailey three years later.

Still a teenager, Howard Baker joined the navy during the Second World War. Under the navy’s officer training program, he continued his education at the University of the South and at Tulane University. After his naval service, he received a law degree from the University of Tennessee. In 1950 he served as the campaign manager of his father’s successful campaign for the House of Representatives and helped his father set up a Washington office. In that same election, former representative Everett M. Dirksen was elected as a Republican senator from Illinois. By December 1951, Representative Baker’s son had married Senator Dirksen’s daughter, Joy.

In 1964 Representative Howard Baker died suddenly of a heart attack. His widow, Irene Bailey Baker, suggested that her stepson run for the seat, but Howard, Jr., declined. Instead, Irene won a special election to replace her husband. She filled out the remaining months of his term, but did not stand for reelection. Howard Baker did run for office that year, for a seat in the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. Although he lost in the Lyndon Johnson landslide, Baker gained significant recognition around the state to enable him to win a Senate race in 1966, and became Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican senator. In Washington, he joined the Republican ranks headed by his father-in-law, Everett Dirksen.

When Senator Dirksen died in 1969, Baker made a race to succeed him as Republican leader, losing to Pennsylvania senator Hugh Scott. Four years later, Scott appointed Baker to serve on the Senate Watergate Committee, where he gained national exposure. When Senator Scott retired in 1976, Republicans elected Howard Baker as their floor leader. Baker became Republican leader just after his party had lost the White House and had been in the minority in both houses of Congress for more than two decades. Moreover, the party he led was divided between its moderate and conservative wings. Consequently, his job became one of accommodation and “herding cats,” as he described it. Such difficulty did not mean that leadership was unworkable, but it meant that a leader had to understand the institution as a whole and the personalities of its individual members.

Baker reached out to build personal ties to Democratic majority leader Robert C. Byrd, and wherever possible cooperated with the administration of Democratic president Jimmy Carter. Baker supported key portions of Carter’s energy program and delivered the essential votes to give the president the necessary two-thirds margin to ratify the Panama Canal Treaties. His support of turning the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians was consistent with the policies of past Republican administrations, but was unpopular among Republican conservatives and a rallying cry for Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid. For someone with presidential ambitions, it took considerable courage for Baker to put principle before personal ambition.

Baker announced his candidacy for president in 1980, but did poorly in the primaries and withdrew from the race. He realized that it was impossible to juggle his Senate leadership duties and a grueling presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980 brought a Republican majority in the Senate, and Howard Baker became the Senate majority leader. His civility, his openness to both wings of his party, and his willingness to forge bipartisan alliances served the Reagan agenda well. When Howard Baker chose to retire from the Senate in 1984 after serving four terms, he was warmly regarded by members of both parties as the “great conciliator.” The Senate, he said, had shown in the “clamorous, cumbersome, chaotic” way it did business that it reflected the passion and the common sense of its constituents. As he called for the last roll-call vote of his legislative career, the majority leader asked for a blessing: “In His care the Senate and the Nation it serves will not only endure but prevail in the . . . challenges that define the modern world.”

After leaving the Senate, Howard Baker returned to public service as White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan, and later as the U.S. ambassador to Japan. After Joy Baker’s death, he married former Kansas senator Nancy Kassebaum. In 1998 he returned to the Senate to deliver a Leader’s Lecture. As he explained in his lecture on July 14, 1998, Baker’s view of the Senate extended back long before his time.

On Herding Cats

What makes the Senate work today is the same thing that made it work in the days of Clay, Webster and Calhoun. . . .

It isn't just the principled courage, creative compromise and persuasive eloquence that these men brought to the leadership of the Senate—important as these qualities were in restoring the political prestige and constitutional importance of the Senate itself in the first half of the nineteenth century. . . .

It isn't simply an understanding of the unique role and rules of the Senate, important as that understanding is. It isn't even a devotion to the good of the country, which has inspired every senator since 1789.

What really makes the Senate work—as our heroes knew profoundly—is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the hearts as well as the minds, the frailties as well as the strengths, of one's colleagues and one's constituents. . . .

Very often in the course of my eighteen years in the Senate, and especially in the last eight years as Republican leader and then majority leader, I found myself engaged in fire-breathing, passionate debate with my fellow senators over the great issues of the times. . . .

But no sooner had the final word been spoken and the last vote taken than I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his support on the next issue for the following day. . . .

We are doing the business of the American people. We do it every day. We have to do it with the same people every day. And if we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don't like, we would soon stop functioning altogether. . . .

Barry Goldwater and I were personal friends, as well as professional colleagues and members of the same political team. Even so, I could not automatically count on Barry's support for anything. Once, when I really needed his vote and leaned on him perhaps a little too hard, he said to his majority leader, "Howard, you have one vote, and I have one vote, and we'll just see how this thing turns out."

It was at that moment that I formulated my theory that being leader of the Senate was like herding cats. It is trying to make ninety-nine independent souls act in concert under rules that encourage polite anarchy and embolden people who find majority rule a dubious proposition at best.1

As Senator Trent Lott so aptly commented about Baker, “There is nothing in any political science textbook that explains the unique way that he led the Senate, but those who were part of it at the time remember.” Senators remembered his cool patience, his seemingly nonchalant attitude, his willingness to allow a policy debate to rage for days on the Senate floor. “And then,” Senator Lott added, “when the voices calmed and the tempers died down, there would be an informal gathering in his office.”2 Anxious staffers outside would hear laughter from behind the closed doors as the leader told some timely anecdote to break the ice and bring about a civil consensus. He understood that it was the personal relationships between senators that made the Senate work.

Further Reading:

Annis, J. Lee, Jr. Howard Baker: Conciliator in an Age of Crisis. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1995.

Lott, Trent. Leading the United States Senate: The Leader’s Lecture Series. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002.

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1.Trent Lott, Leading the United States Senate: The Leader’s Lecture Series (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 32, 33, 34.
2. Ibid., 28.