Opinion: Howard Baker’s death a reminder of the pygmy politicians we have now

Sen. Howard Baker, center, in 1979 with colleagues Jesse Helms, left, and Charles Percy.
Sen. Howard Baker, center, in 1979 with colleagues Jesse Helms, left, and Charles Percy.
(Charles W. Harrity / Associated Press)

When someone dies, folks often say: “They don’t make them like that anymore.” In the case of former Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who passed away Thursday, that’s certainly true.

Baker is most famous, of course, for his role in the Watergate hearings that brought down Richard Nixon. None of us who were alive then will ever forget his line “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

But Baker’s death is also a reminder of something important that’s seemingly been lost in American politics: politicians who are willing to put the country’s interests above their own, and their party’s.


Baker was not naive about politics. In 1992, he said of Watergate: “I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing.”

But here’s what set him apart from today’s rabid partisans: “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.”

It was to Baker’s great credit that he followed through on those misgivings, despite the damage Watergate ultimately did to the Republican Party. As The Times’ story Thursday on Baker noted: “The answers doomed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and sealed Baker’s reputation as that rare find: a thoughtful politician who, as one reporter suggested, ‘had nothing at heart but the interests of our country.’ ”

So it was one of the great ironies of U.S. politics when none other than Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Baker’s death Thursday on the floor of the Senate: “Sen. Baker truly earned his nickname: the Great Conciliator. I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties.”

Because yes, that’s the same Mitch McConnell who once said that, for Republicans, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Suffice to say, there aren’t any Howard Bakers among Republicans today. If or when Republicans take back the White House, there probably won’t be any Howard Bakers among Democrats either.


And the country is certainly poorer for that.

Watergate was a shameful episode in American politics. That politicians of both parties — and especially Baker — played key roles in getting to the heart of the scandal is to their great credit. The nation will always be in their debt.

Since then, though, the country has seemingly been on a downward spiral of partisanship, the shameful impeachment of President Clinton being the most egregious example.

For this country to be great, it needs political leaders to demonstrate greatness. Baker did; McConnell and his ilk haven’t.

I can think of no greater tribute to Baker, then, than to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel: “Where have you gone, Howard Baker; a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Follow Paul Whitefield on Twitter @PaulWhitefield1