Thursday, June 26, 2014

Death of a Statesman

"What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Sen. Howard Baker
While questioning John Dean
June 28, 1973

Howard Baker, who died today at the age of 88, might have been vice president. Or president.

When Gerald Ford won the 1976 Republican nomination, Baker reportedly was the front–runner to be Ford's running mate. But Ford chose one of Baker's colleagues in the Senate, Bob Dole, instead.

The Ford–Dole ticket went on to lose to the Carter–Mondale ticket. It also lost Baker's home state of Tennessee — but, even if one assumes that Baker's presence on the ticket would have given Tennessee to the Republicans (which is not much of a stretch, given that Tennessee had voted Republican in five of the previous six presidential elections and was close on Election Night 1976), that wouldn't have been enough to change the outcome of the national race.

By itself.

In hindsight, though, it is possible that Baker could have helped Ford win a few more Southern states — such as Mississippi (which remained too close to call until nearly 3 a.m. on Election Night), Louisiana (which gave a rather tepid 51% of its vote to fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter, who won every Southern state but Virginia that year) and North Carolina (which was even closer than Baker's home state) — and claim a narrow victory.

Baker was considered the "safe" choice for running mate, journalist Jules Witcover wrote, but, in the end, Ford opted for Dole for a number of reasons: Surveys suggested that Baker didn't have as much name recognition as most observers thought, and the public's perception of his performance during the Watergate hearings was "fuzzy," which dramatically lowered his potential value to the ticket.

Another factor, wrote Witcover, was that "Ford did not feel particularly comfortable with Baker."

If Ford had won that election, he would not have been eligible to run in 1980 because he had served more than half of his predecessor's term — and if Baker had been Ford's vice president, he probably would have sought the nomination.

He actually did seek the 1980 nomination, but he fared poorly in the Republican primaries, and Ronald Reagan eventually won the GOP nomination. It seems likely that, as the incumbent vice president, he would have been in a stronger position than he actually was — and might well have been the nominee.

At the very least, he probably would have done better than he did.

Baker might also have been a Supreme Court justice. Richard Nixon reportedly wanted to fill one of two vacancies with Baker — but Baker apparently took too long to tell Nixon whether he would accept, and Nixon offered it to William Rehnquist.

Baker finally did make it to the White House — as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff.

He had the kind of biography that even a skilled fiction writer couldn't make up. Baker was married twice, both times to women with prominent ties to the Republican Party. His first wife, Joy, was the daughter of longtime Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. She died of cancer.

His second wife, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, was the daughter of 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alfred Landon. She survives him.

Howard Baker was the kind of man most people say they want in political office — a man of integrity. He was known as the "Great Conciliator" for his skill at brokering compromise agreements between seemingly irreconcilable groups while (usually) preserving civility.

He was also very personable, soft spoken, a political centrist. America always seems to have a shortage of genuine statesmen, but Baker was one of them. He always seemed motivated to unite, not divide.

I've heard it said that a reporter once told a Democrat senator that the reporter's informal survey indicated that more of the senator's Democratic colleagues would support Baker for president than anyone else.

It is hard to imagine anyone on either side of the political fence commanding that much support from the opposition party today.

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