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Column: Howard Baker: Conservative in the Middle

Perhaps no politician in modern times has been as qualified to be president and yet never made it than Howard Henry Baker, who died Thursday at age 88. He was a political leader of uncommon talents in short supply today. A totally secure man whose folksy warmth was matched by a sharp intellect.

The Tennessee Republican was the Senate majority leader in the early 1980s who enacted much of Ronald Reagan’s agenda, while helping correct some of the excesses. In 1986, after the Iran-Contra scandal, he rescued the Reagan presidency by serving as White House chief of staff. He later served with distinction as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

His greatest act of statesmanship, however, may have been in helping Jimmy Carter pass the Panama Canal Treaties in 1978. This was the background: Carter was a Democratic president who was struggling; Baker was the Senate Republican leader planning to run for President in 1980; the treaty to hand back the canal to Panama, with protections, was overwhelmingly opposed by the public, especially Republicans.

It required a two-thirds vote in the Senate, impossible without Republicans, and the key was their leader. The Tennessee lawmaker helped negotiate some modifications and then backed the deal, which passed 68 to 32. If the treaty had failed, violent chaos in Panama was likely.

It cost him politically when he ran for president two years later, and was a factor in why Reagan picked George H.W. Bush instead of Baker as his running mate.

It is impossible to imagine a leader of either party playing a similar role today.

Baker was a moderate conservative respected enormously by most of his Democratic colleagues. His centrist politics were creative and deeply held, not a balancing act or cop-out. His stepmother, Irene, once told me: “Henry is like the Tennessee River, he floats down the middle. He’s very comfortable there.”

Before he was elected to his leadership post, Baker was a central figure in the special Watergate committee investigating charges against President Richard Nixon. It was Baker who famously framed the issue: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Baker, a onetime ally of Nixon’s, worked closely with the committee chairman, Sam Ervin, and the committee’s discoveries were devastating for Nixon.

With all his success as a political leader, he never lost his Hunstville, Tenn., roots. His cousin Toomey Baker once told me he left all the politics to Henry: “Politics is like marijuana; I worry if I try it I might like it.”

The extended family was Republican royalty. Both his father and stepmother were members of Congress. His first wife, Joy, was the daughter of an earlier Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen. After she died, he married Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, whose dad, Alf Landon, was the 1936 Republican presidential nominee.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.

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