Howard H. Baker Jr., a soft-spoken Tennessee lawyer who served three terms in the Senate and became known as “the great conciliator” in his eight years as the chamber’s Republican leader, died on Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn. He was 88.
His death was announced on the Senate floor by the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called him “one of the Senate’s most towering figures.”
Mr. Baker found his greatest fame in the summer of 1973, when he was the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee that investigated wrongdoing of the Nixon White House in the Watergate affair. In televised hearings that riveted the nation, he repeatedly asked the question on the minds of millions of Americans: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
The question, or variations on it, became a national catchphrase.
Mr. Baker described his political philosophy as “moderate to moderate conservative.” Friendly and unfailingly courteous, he was popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.
Schooled in the art of compromise by his own powerful father-in-law, Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Mr. Baker was heir to a centrist Republican tradition and then its standard-bearer.
He opposed school busing for integration as “a grievous piece of mischief,” yet he supported fair-housing and voting-rights legislation. He championed fiscal conservatism but favored big Pentagon budgets. And when the Watergate affair thrust him into the national limelight, he exhibited a willingness to look hard at the actions of a president from his own party.
Mr. Baker was not above herding feuding partisans into a room and keeping them there until they came to an agreement, often one that he had helped write. By his lights, the Senate aisle was something that often had to be bridged.
“He’s like the Tennessee River,” his stepmother, Irene Bailey Baker, once said. “He flows right down the middle.”
Mr. Baker was also ambassador to Japan for four years and White House chief of staff for one. He made two tries for the presidency. But he will be remembered as, quintessentially, a man of the Senate.
He served there from January 1967 to January 1985. He was the minority leader from 1977 to 1981, then majority leader after his party took over the Senate in the 1980 elections. As majority leader, a post he held for four years, he helped pass President Ronald Reagan’s first-term tax cuts. He later helped Reagan weather the Iran-contra scandal.
As a member of the public works committee, Mr. Baker helped draft theClean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. But by his reckoning, he made his biggest contribution to the environment right in his own backyard: the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, created by Congress in 1974.
The park, a 125,000-acre national park that overlaps Tennessee and Kentucky, protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Mr. Baker and Senator John Sherman Cooper, Republican of Kentucky, were the main Senate backers of the park. Speaking to a television interviewer late in his life, Mr. Baker said, “I’ll be remembered longer for Big South Fork than anything else.”
Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born on Nov. 15, 1925, in the Cumberland Mountain town of Huntsville, a Republican-leaning region of Tennessee that had resisted secession at the time of the Civil War. His grandfather was a judge, and his grandmother was the first woman to serve as sheriff in Tennessee.
His mother, Dora, died when he was 8. Three years later, his father married Irene Bailey. Howard Baker Sr. was a congressman from Tennessee from 1951 until his death in January 1964, whereupon his wife was elected to fill out the balance of his term.
Howard Jr. was a champion debater in elementary school. After graduating from a military academy in Chattanooga in 1943, he entered a Navy officer-training program and studied electrical engineering at the University of the South and Tulane University. He did a brief tour of duty as a lieutenant, junior grade, on a PT boat in the South Pacific as World War II was ending.
After the war, he switched from engineering to law, earning his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Tennessee. He prospered in both civil and criminal law and invested profitably in banking and real estate. During his father’s first term in Congress, he met Joy Dirksen, the daughter of Senator Dirksen. They married in 1951.
Joy Dirksen died of cancer in 1993. Three years later, Mr. Baker married former Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, the daughter of Gov. Alfred M. Landon of Kansas, the 1936 Republican nominee for president. She survives him, as do a son, Darek; a daughter, Cissy Baker; four grandsons; a sister, Mary Stuart; and a half-sister, Beverly Patestides.
Mr. Baker’s first Senate campaign ended in defeat. In 1964, he ran to fill the unexpired term of Senator Estes Kefauver, who had died the previous summer. He tried to distance himself from the presidential campaign of Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, yet he ran on stances more conservative than those he would embrace later — promising to fight federal interference in local education and civil rights issues, for instance.
“I was a young man in his first race, which was a tumultuous campaign,” he said later in explaining his platform.
Mr. Baker lost to the more liberal Ross Bass, but he attracted more votes than any previous Tennessee Republican in a statewide election. Two years later, he ran for the Senate again, against Gov. Frank G. Clement, who had beaten Mr. Bass in the Democratic primary. This time, he took more moderate stances, supporting fair-housing laws, for example.
Mr. Baker was endorsed by some newspapers that Mr. Clement had alienated. And Richard M. Nixon, who was trying to make friends as he positioned himself to run for president in 1968, campaigned across Tennessee on Mr. Baker’s behalf.
Mr. Baker cut into the traditionally Democratic vote, especially among blacks and young people, and won with 56 percent of the overall vote. He became the first Republican to win a Senate election in Tennessee since the end of Reconstruction.
As a newcomer to the Senate, he pushed for loosening the shackles of the seniority system to give new legislators more influence. In so doing, he defied not only Senate tradition but also Senator Dirksen.
After Mr. Dirksen died in 1969, Mr. Baker ran to succeed him as party leader. He lost to Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who had nearly a decade’s more seniority. Undiscouraged, Mr. Baker challenged Mr. Scott two years later and lost again, albeit by a smaller margin.
When the Senate voted unanimously to form a bipartisan committee to investigate the Watergate burglary and other wrongdoing during the presidential campaign of 1972, Mr. Scott insisted that Mr. Baker be the panel’s ranking Republican on the ground that every senator in their party had recommended him.
There was also talk that Mr. Scott was happy to put Mr. Baker in a spot that was potentially embarrassing, given Mr. Baker’s past friendship with Nixon, as punishment for having challenged him.
In any event, Mr. Baker’s performance on the Watergate committee made him a figure of national prominence, as his calm, lawyerly manner complemented the folksiness of the committee chairman, Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., Democrat of North Carolina.
Before the 1976 election, Mr. Baker hoped that President Gerald R. Ford would pick him for his running mate. Instead, Mr. Ford selected Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, a far more partisan Republican and sharp-tongued campaigner. (Unlike Mr. Dole, Mr. Baker never seemed consumed by politics. He liked tennis and golf and was an avid photographer.)
In 1980, Mr. Baker made a brief run for the presidency, finishing third in the New Hampshire primary, behind Reagan and George Bush. When it became clear that Reagan would win the nomination, Mr. Baker let it be known that he would like to be the vice-presidential candidate.
But Republican conservatives blocked him. The same qualities that had made him such an effective legislator — the willingness to break with party ideology and work with the opposition — made him unpopular with the party’s ascendant right wing. Mr. Baker had supported civil rights legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment and the treaty ceding the Panama Canal to Panama, much to the annoyance of conservatives.
Mr. Baker retired from the Senate after the 1984 elections. His wife, Joy, was being treated for cancer, and he was believed to be wearying from the pace of the Senate. He joined the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, where he reportedly earned close to $1 million a year. In recent years, he was senior counsel to Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a Tennessee law firm founded by his grandfather.
In 1984, Reagan awarded Mr. Baker the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
There was talk that Mr. Baker might run for president again, in 1988. Instead, he gave up his post with the law firm to accept Reagan’s request to become White House chief of staff early in 1987. People who knew Mr. Baker said the move demonstrated two things: his loyalty to country and party, and his lack of a burning desire to be president.
At the time, the Reagan White House was reeling from disclosures that several members of the administration had arranged sales of weapons to Iran, then used some of the proceeds to finance the opponents, or “contras,” of the left-wing government in Nicaragua. The dealings, contrary to the expressed will of Congress as well as the administration’s own policies, raised questions about Reagan’s loose management style and even his awareness of events.
Mr. Baker was credited with helping to get the administration back on track, in part by improving relations with Capitol Hill — although he first had to dispel a widespread impression that he much preferred the Senate to the other side of Congress. (He had once said in jest that there were two things he did not understand: “the Middle East and the House of Representatives.”)
Mr. Baker’s easier personal style was a relief to White House aides who had worked under the previous chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, a hard-driving former Marine and Wall Street executive who had clashed with Congress and with the first lady, Nancy Reagan.
But Mr. Baker had his frustrations as chief of staff. The president’s conservative advisers grumbled that Mr. Baker was too accommodating to Congress. More liberal politicians, on the other hand, complained that he had failed to persuade the president to be accommodating enough.
In late 1987, Mr. Baker lost a battle with Attorney General Edwin H. Meese III over a Supreme Court vacancy. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. was retiring, and Reagan’s first choice to succeed him, the conservative and controversial Judge Robert H. Bork of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was rejected by the Senate.
Mr. Baker thought the next nominee should be less polarizing, or else the president might be embarrassed again. At a tense private meeting, he urged Reagan to pick Judge Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Instead, the president took the advice of Mr. Meese and nominated Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the District of Columbia Circuit, who was considered more conservative.
Judge Ginsburg’s candidacy soon collapsed amid revelations that he had smoked marijuana in his youth, and Judge Kennedy was named to the Supreme Court after all. But vindicated or not, Mr. Baker never had as much influence with Reagan as did Mr. Meese, the president’s old friend from California and ideological soul mate.
When he resigned on June 14, 1988, Mr. Baker cited the continuing concerns over his wife’s health. But there was no denying that he had said, just over a year before, that he would stay to the end of the Reagan presidency.
Mr. Baker was the United States ambassador to Japan for four years beginning in early 2001. In 2005, he became an adviser to Citigroup on international issues.
In 2007, he and three other former Senate leaders founded the Bipartisan Policy Center, which promotes bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems. The others were Mr. Dole and the Democrats George J. Mitchell, of Maine, and Tom Daschle, of South Dakota.
Some fascinating “what ifs” attached to Mr. Baker’s years in Washington. Just before becoming Reagan’s White House chief of staff, for instance, he turned down an offer to head the C.I.A.
More intriguingly, he was rumored to be under consideration as Nixon’s running mate in 1968. Had Nixon selected him and gone on to win the election, and had Mr. Baker remained on the ticket for the Nixon landslide victory of 1972, Mr. Baker would have become president when Nixon resigned in 1974.
Or would Vice President Baker have been close enough to Nixon, and shrewd enough about the White House inner circle, to prevent the misdeeds of Watergate, or at least halt the cover-up in time to preserve the Nixon presidency?
Instead, Nixon tapped Gov. Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland. When Mr. Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973 amid a corruption scandal stemming from his time as governor, Nixon chose Representative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan to replace him, and Ford succeeded Nixon.
And on the morning of Oct. 29, 1971, Nixon offered Mr. Baker a nomination to the Supreme Court, according to White House tape recordings made public in 1998. Mr. Baker told Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who had tendered Nixon’s offer, that he wanted to remain in the Senate.
Think it over, Mr. Mitchell urged.
Mr. Baker did. He called Mr. Mitchell back later that day and told him that he would rather stay in the Senate, but that he would accept the court nomination “if the president insists.”
“Well,” Mr. Mitchell said, “we don’t want a reluctant candidate. Besides, he has already chosen Bill Rehnquist.”