Howard Baker had his sights set on the White House in 1980.
And, had it not been for Ronald Reagan, he might have gotten there. But because of Reagan, as it turned out, he got there anyway.
By the time Jimmy Carter's embattled first term as president was coming to an end in 1980, Baker was already one of Washington's biggest movers and shakers. The attorney from Huntsville, Tenn., had been asked by Richard Nixon to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, then played a key role in the Senate's Watergate investigation that toppled Nixon's presidency, was strongly considered to be Gerald Ford's vice president, and had served as both minority leader and majority leader in the Senate.
Baker had only been in Washington 14 years — not long, by Washington standards — and already it seemed that the only thing left for him to accomplish in 1980 was a run at the Oval Office.
The primary campaign was a short-lived one for Baker. He polled well — as high as second in some polls well into November 1979 — but dropped out of the race after losing the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush and the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan. Reagan would go on to win the Republican nomination and the presidency.
Baker, meanwhile, finished up his ongoing term in the Senate and then retired from politics . . . temporarily.
Washington was never far from Baker's mind and, in fact, he had not completely decided against another run at the White House when he wound up back in the political fray once more.
Ronald Reagan's second term was nearing its end. Bush, Reagan's vice president, was considered the heir apparent to the throne. But Baker was considering a run against him. In February 1987, he took his family to Miami — a get-away to mull over his options.
Reagan, meanwhile, had won re-election by a huge landslide in 1984. But his presidency was troubled by Christmas 1986 — the Iran-Contra scandal was only one of several issues weighing against the president. And, weeks later, he made an aggressive effort to save it by shaking things up. embattled chief of staff Donald Regan was out, and Reagan's sights were on his former primary opponent.
When Reagan phoned Baker's wife, Joy, she informed him that her husband was at the zoo with his six-year-old grandson.
"She said there was a presidential chortle on the other end of the line and he was heard to say, 'Wait until he sees the zoo I have in mind for him,'" Baker recalled in an interview years later.
Reagan didn't say exactly what he had in mind, but asked that Baker fly to Washington the next day. Baker did, but already had his mind made up — whatever the president wanted, he was retired from politics and intended to stay that way.
"The elevator door opened and there stood Ronald Reagan who said, 'Howard, I have to have a new chief of staff and I want you to do it.' I heard myself say, 'All right.' That was the end of my good resolve," Baker said in a 2005 interview with the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "Looking back on it, I was surprised that he asked and I was even more surprised that I agreed, but I did. I told him I'd stay for a while, that Joy wasn't well and I had other things I had to do."
The rest, as they say, is history. And history credits Baker — fairly or unfairly — with saving the Reagan presidency. A modest man to his core, Baker could not necessarily disagree.
"Forgive the vanity, if it is vain, (but) I believe that the relationship between Congress, especially the Senate, and the White House was significantly different even after the year and a half I was there, from what it was in the beginning," Baker told the Miller Center.
Baker's bipartisan approach was legendary by the time he made the move to Reagan's White House in 1987, and both the president and Congress welcomed the bipartisanship that Baker brought to the table.
On the personnel side, meanwhile, Baker had even more daunting tasks than persuading a chamber full of Democrats that his boss was correct. He had to clean up the White House, so to speak.
"One of the unhappy responsibilities as chief of staff was that Ronald Reagan was emotionally incapable of firing anybody," Baker later said. "More than once he'd come to me and say, 'Now, Howard, tell me, how long has that fellow worked for us?' I'd say, 'Mr. President, let me make sure I understand what you're asking. Are you suggesting that perhaps he's worked here long enough?' Sometimes he'd say, 'Yes, I think so.' Then it would be my duty and responsibility to summon that person and tell them that the president did not require their services any longer."
But Baker won over the White House staff, just as he won over Congress.
"When I first got Don Regan's staff together they were obviously apprehensive and even some were hostile," Baker said later. "I began by saying, 'Look, you're not all fired immediately, but some of you will be fired. Some of you will be changed, but I'll be glad to help you any way I can.'
"With one or two exceptions, that went down amazingly well."
Reagan, meanwhile, survived the Iron-Contra hearings, the botched nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and a souring relationship with Congress.
With Baker advising Reagan on both domestic and foreign policy issues, some of Reagan's best-known moments were ahead, none of them bigger than his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
Ironically, the key quote from that speech — the statement for which Reagan is best known — would not have happened had it been left up to Baker, who was the first person to review Reagan's speeches.
"When I read the speech that got out from the speechwriters I got to that part where it said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,'" Baker said. "I called Tommy (Griscom), who was my interface with the speechwriters, and I said, 'Griscom, come up here.' He came up and I said, 'This section where you have the president saying, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' you really ought to take that out. It's so unlikely, it's unpresidential.'"
It would later turn out that Reagan, who wrote most of his speeches himself, sketching them out on yellow legal pads before sending them to his speechwriters, had come up with that line himself. When Griscom objected to taking it out, Baker relented.
"Being a man of high principle, I said, 'Okay, then leave it in,'" Baker said. "That's a true story. It's not a flattering story but it's a true story. I've thought a lot of times how terrible it would have been if I had insisted on that coming out."
Later, Baker was with Reagan when he delivered the speech in Berlin — and spoke the most famous words of his presidency.
Baker left the White House after an 18-month tenure that history regards as vital to the resurrection of the Reagan presidency. He did not seek his own term in the White House; instead, George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan in the Oval Office. Baker returned home to Huntsville, where he resumed his law practice — and his hobby of photography — before eventually being called into duty once more by Bush's son, George W. Bush, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Japan.