By Michael Willard
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff — who President Trump childishly demeans as “little Schiff” — asked at the close of Impeachment hearings, “Where’s Howard Baker?”
His query was both prescient and rhetorical. The Republican Senate leader died in 2014, and a younger generation might be mystified at his name put forth in a contemporary setting.
However it’s entirely appropriate. No, read that entirely necessary, instructive and reputation saving for the Grand Old Party — if anything can be.
Baker’s shadow, and that of other giants of yesteryear, loom over the US Capitol from a time when partisanship, always present, was more flickering cinders and not the raging inferno of today.
Both side have built a wall, much taller, much stronger than anything that could be contemplated on our southern border, and this is the tragedy of it all as it diminishes a democracy.
Cast your mind back to 1973.
Richard Nixon was the man in the impeachment barrel and Baker was vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. His counterpart was the folksy Sam Ervin of North Carolina.
Baker said from the very outset of the Watergate proceedings: “Let the chips fall where they may.” This is not a phrase you hear nowadays.
Howard Baker was a man I had covered as a political reporter in Tennessee. I had accompanied him on a campaign train trip across the state. Instead of pressing the flesh, he seemed more interested in taking pictures of the crowds with his Hasselblad camera. He had other interests than politics.
During Watergate, the phase that became most associated with the hearings — other than “the smoking gun” — was Baker’s famous question of witnesses:
“What did the President know and when did he know it.” It was a line I was later to use with clients in crisis trainings, noting that companies in crisis will have to answer to various constituencies.
Later, after Nixon resigned, I stood across from Baker in the US Senate chamber each day when both the majority and minority leaders met with the press, prior to the session convening.
Majority Leader Robert Byrd, my boss, would first take questions from reporters, and then Baker. They were more than cordial with one another in the nearly side-by-side encounters.
To say that Baker and I were close friends would be an overstatement. To say I simply admired him would be an understatement. We all did.
In fact, the night the Democrats went from being a majority party to a minority one in the Ronald Reagan landslide, Byrd — amidst his staff’s gloom, joked, “I’m going down to Howard’s office to measure it for curtains.”
The majority leader controls everything on the Senate side of the Capitol from the flow of legislation to the temperature, including who gets choice real estate in the building.
Byrd figured, most likely, the Tennessee senator and new leader would covet his offices. It didn’t happen. Baker told Byrd he could keep his expansive space on the second floor.
But, this column is not about office territory. It’s about comity between the GOP and Democrats, something that today is as rare as the mostly extinct Bornean orangutan.
But listen for a moment to Baker discussing Watergate long after he had retired, having left the Senate and having served a stint as Reagan’s chief of staff:
“It was in that spirit (of cooperation) that we worked together. We realized some things were more important than gaining immediate partisan advantage. And there are some things necessary to do in order to preserve and protect your own constituency — in my case the Republican Party. “
The last time I saw Baker was on the tarmac of the Knoxville McGhee-Tyson airport years ago. I was back in Tennessee to film a commercial for a client. He greeted me like an old friend.
Baker and Byrd were two great leaders who could work together. A former colleague of mine, Ambassador Ira Shapiro, wrote a book calling this period, “The Last Great Senate.”
Perhaps it was. Let’s hope not. But the question lingers over impeachment hearings: “Where’s a Howard Baker.”