Known as the Great Conciliator, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, of Tennessee, died Thursday. He was 88.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., confirmed the news in a statement midday Thursday.
“Howard Baker was Tennessee’s favorite son, one of America’s finest leaders and, for Honey and me, an indispensable friend,” Alexander said. “He built our state’s two-party political system and inspired three generations to try to build a better state and country. It is difficult to express how much we honor his life and how much we will miss him.”
Alexander was Baker’s first legislative assistant in 1967 and 1968. Baker served Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, where he eventually was elected majority leader, from 1967-85. Baker subsequently served as chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and U.S. ambassador to Japan. Alexander met his wife, Honey, when he worked for Baker and she for Texas Sen. John Tower.
Baker was often regarded as one of the most successful senators in terms of brokering compromises, enacting legislation and maintaining civility.
“Howard Baker’s name is synonymous with civility,” said Tennessee GOP Chairman Chris Devaney. “I first met him when I worked for Fred Thompson and instantly understood why Sen. Baker had such a sterling reputation.
“When I became chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, he was one of the first to congratulate me. Instead of simply retiring to his Huntsville home, he helped us get on firm financial ground and was always there to offer advice for our party. It’s clear, when you think of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee, you think of Sen. Baker.
“His legacy will always be bigger than the party. He was more than just a legend in Tennessee—he was a titan in American politics. Sen. Baker will be missed.”
He was first elected to the U.S. Senate by beating former Gov. Frank G. Clement to become the first elected Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction.
“When I think of the ultimate statesman, the very first person who comes to my mind is Howard Baker,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “Howard Baker was one of those people who had the unique ability to bring out the very best in those around him. He always put our country’s interests first, and lived a life of service that everyone in public office should aspire to emulate. I have cherished the privilege of being able to sit down and talk with Howard on many occasions, and I will always value his words of encouragement.
“Elizabeth and I extend our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Nancy, the Baker family and all those who have been touched by Howard’s remarkable life.”
In 1971, President Richard Nixon asked Baker to fill one of the two empty seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. But when Baker took too long to decide whether he wanted the job, Nixon nominated William Rehnquist instead.
In 1973-74, Baker served as ranking minority member of the Senate committee that investigated Watergate.
Baker ran for president in 1980, but dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination after losing the Iowa caucuses to President George H.W. Bush and the New Hampshire primary to Reagan. In 1987, Reagan appointed Baker his chief of staff.
In 2003, the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy was set up at the University of Tennessee.