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Friday, June 27, 2014

Sen. Howard Baker, who posed famous Watergate query, dies

By CONNIE CASS

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Howard Baker’s question sliced to the core of Watergate: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

Baker, who later became Senate majority leader, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP’s elder statesmen, died Thursday at his Tennessee home of complications from a stroke. He was 88. ...

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Howard Baker’s question sliced to the core of Watergate: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

Baker, who later became Senate majority leader, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP’s elder statesmen, died Thursday at his Tennessee home of complications from a stroke. He was 88.

Baker emerged as an unlikely star of the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973. When chosen as vice chairman – and therefore leading Republican – of the Senate special committee, he was a Nixon ally who thought the allegations couldn’t possibly be true. Democrats feared he would serve as the White House’s “mole” in the investigation of the break-in at Democratic headquarters and other crimes perpetrated in service to Nixon’s re-election.

“I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” Baker said. “But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

He said Watergate became “the greatest disillusionment” of his career.

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts that stuck throughout a long political career. In 18 years as a moderate Republican senator, he was known for plain speaking and plain dealing. He had a talent for brokering compromise, leading some to dub him “the Great Conciliator.”

Baker was minority leader when the Reagan landslide swept Republicans into control of the chamber in 1980 Reagan, and he became the first Republican majority leader in decades.

Putting aside his own reservations about Reagan’s economic proposals, Baker played a key role in passage of legislation synonymous with the “Reagan Revolution” – major tax and spending cuts combined with a military buildup.

Baker considered his years as Senate majority leader, 1981-85, the high point of his career. He called it “the second-best job in town, only second to the presidency.”

He made a fleeting bid for that best job in 1980, and left the Senate with an eye to another presidential run in 1988. Instead, he ended up in the White House as Reagan’s chief of staff.

Reagan needed him to put things in order after ousting chief of staff Donald Regan amid scandal over the administration’s secret moves to trade arms for hostages in Iran and divert the profits to Nicaraguan rebels – another of history’s what-did-the-president-know moments.

Baker recalled marshaling all his reasons for refusing the offer, but he couldn’t turn down Reagan. “I guess I am a pushover for presidents,” he said.

The Reagan White House weathered Iran-Contra. But Baker lost his last chance at the presidency.

“I have seen it up close and personal and I am convinced that I could do that job,” he said. “But that boat never came to dock.”

During much of the 1980s and ’90s, Baker grappled with the illness of his wife, Joy, daughter of Everett Dirksen, a former GOP Senate leader. She died in 1993 after an 11-year battle with cancer. The couple had two children.

In 1996, Baker married Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum. It was the first time two people who had served in the Senate married.

President George H.W. Bush sent Baker to Moscow in 1991 to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before a summit; George W. Bush named him ambassador to Japan in 2001.

An accomplished amateur photographer, Baker carried a camera wherever he went. But he didn’t take any photos during the Watergate hearings.

“I felt that it was beneath the dignity of the event,” he said years later. “It turned out the event had no dignity and I should have taken pictures.”