KNOXVILLE—Howard H. Baker Jr., former U.S. senator and founder of UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, died on Thursday, June 26. He was 88.
Baker earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, in 1949. UT’s Baker Center was founded in 2003 as a nonpartisan institute devoted to education and research concerning public policy and civic engagement. Baker received the university’s first honorary doctorate in spring 2005.
“Our country has lost a great statesman and a great Tennessean,” UT Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said. “Senator Baker will live on in our hearts forever as a man who believed that government was to serve the people.”
Baker’s body will lie in state at the Baker Center at 1640 Cumberland Avenue in Knoxville, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, June 30. His funeral will be on Tuesday, July 1, at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Tennessee, where he was born. Huntsville is in Scott County, north of Oak Ridge and Anderson County.
Matt Murray, director of the Baker Center, said the senator’s work will continue to influence students and inspire aspiring public servants for generations to come.
“The Baker Center stands as a living legacy to a member of the greatest generation,” he said. “Sen. Howard Baker will always represent what is good about those who serve our country unselfishly. We are honored to carry on his work to create a more civil engagement in our government.”
Doug Blaze, dean of UT’s College of Law, said Baker “is our college’s most illustrious alumnus and has made such a difference for the country, the state, and the university. He represents the best of what we do, thanks to his commitment to the legal profession and his commitment to community.”
Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born in Huntsville on November 15, 1925.
After graduating from a military preparatory school in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as part of its V-12 officer training program. At the conclusion of his tenure in the Navy, Baker attended UT’s College of Law.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966—and then re-elected in 1972 and 1978—Baker was known as “The Great Conciliator” for his ability to bring Republican and Democratic lawmakers together. He was instrumental in the passage of such bipartisan efforts as the Panama Canal Treaty, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. But his position as Senate minority leader, and later Senate majority leader, was anything but easy, and Baker famously commented that leading the Senate was like “herding cats.”
Baker rose to national prominence during the Watergate hearings of 1973 and 1974 as vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. He uttered one of the hearing’s most memorable and historic questions: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Baker also served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff from 1987 to 1988.
In 2001, more than a decade after he left the White House, Baker returned to government service as U.S. ambassador to Japan. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Baker worked to strengthen diplomatic ties between the United States and its closest Pacific ally.
Even after leaving politics, Baker remained an unfaltering public servant. In later years, his thoughts turned to future generations and how they could continue the spirit of cooperation and civic duty that marked his political career.
UT’s Baker Center promotes scholarship and dialogue on current events, governance, and civic engagement. It sponsors lectures, classes, workshops, research, and student initiatives related to policy and politics, particularly in the areas of global security, leadership and governance, and energy and the environment. The center also houses the papers of many Tennessee politicians from the past century, including Baker, Sen. Estes Kefauver, Sen. Fred Thompson, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and Rep. John J. Duncan.
In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney was present for the groundbreaking of the Baker Center building. On October 31, 2008, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor attended the dedication of the center’s stately facilities.
One of the final Baker Center events the senator attended was veteran journalist Tom Brokaw’s visit to campus on November 13, 2013—coinciding with Baker’s 88th birthday two days later.
Baker was preceded in death by his first wife, Joy Dirksen, the daughter of U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois. She died in 1993.
Baker is survived by his wife, former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, whom he married in 1996; a son, Darek Baker of Brentwood, Tennessee; a daughter, Cynthia “Cissy” Baker of McLean, Virginia; two sisters; and four grandchildren.
Here are statements from other state and federal officials and the University of Tennessee on the death of Baker, a former U.S. Senate majority leader:
Gov. Bill Haslam
“Tennessee has lost a hero and a distinguished statesman, and I have lost a friend and mentor.
“Howard Baker made Tennesseans proud, and he taught me an important lesson when I worked for him 35 years ago. Anytime he was sitting across the desk from someone in disagreement, he told himself to keep in mind: You know—the other fellow might be right. Whether at home, in business, or in politics, that is always good advice to consider.
“Nancy, Cissy, Derek, and his entire family are in Crissy’s and my thoughts and prayers.”
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
“Howard Baker was Tennessee’s favorite son, one of America’s finest leaders, and for Honey and me an indispensable friend. 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 the state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, where he eventually was elected majority leader, from 1967 to 1985. Baker subsequently served as chief of staff to President Reagan and U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Alexander met his wife Honey when he worked for Baker and she for Texas senator John Tower.
Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek
“Our country has lost a great statesman and a great Tennessean. Senator Baker will live on in our hearts forever as a man who believed that government was to serve the people.”
Matt Murray, director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy
“The Baker Center stands as a living legacy to a member of the greatest generation. Senator Howard Baker will always represent what is good about those who serve our country unselfishly. We are honored to carry on his work to create a more civil engagement in our government.”
UT System President Joe DiPietro
“Howard Baker was both a distinguished statesman and great friend of the University of Tennessee. Through his brilliant career as a U.S. Senate majority leader, Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee, White House chief of staff, and U.S. ambassador to Japan, he honored his beloved home state. He honored the University of Tennessee as a proud alumnus, a generous donor, and a great friend. As you may know, the rotunda of the UT College of Law building and the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy are named in his honor. Mr. Baker defined statesmanship in ways few have equaled.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker
“When I think of the ultimate statesman, the very first person who comes to my mind is Howard Baker.
“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.”
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann
“It is with deep sadness today that I learned about the passing of one of Tennessee’s greatest statesmen, Mr. Howard Baker. As both the Senate majority leader and President Reagan’s chief of staff, Howard had an unparalleled ability to lead and build consensus allowing him to shape our nation as few before or after him ever have. His impact on the Republican Party and our country as a whole will forever be remembered. Brenda and I offer our sincerest condolences to his wife, family, friends, and colleagues during this difficult time. I was blessed to have learned from Howard while serving as his Congressman and know that his spirit and legacy will continue to live on for years to come.”
Fleischmann said Baker served as Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican Senator from 1967 until 1985. While in the U.S. Senate, he was elected to represent his colleagues as both minority leader and then majority leader. In 1987, Baker transferred to the Executive Branch where he served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff.
Myron Iwanski says
From the time I first observed Senator Baker in the Watergate hearings, throughout his career, and even in retirement, I always admired his way of dealing with people and issues. We need less of the divisiveness we see today and more statesmen like Senator Baker. Our prayers are with his family.