HUNTSVILLE — Former U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. has died peacefully at home, members of his staff and church leadership confirmed Thursdsay afternoon. He was 88.
Sen. Baker, who had been ill for several days, passed shortly after lunch time Thursday. His death was not unexpected; his family had been summoned previously.
Himself the son of an American statesman — Howard H. Baker Sr. represented Tennessee's 2nd District in Congress from 1951 until 1964 — Sen. Baker was a lifelong Republican and Scott Countian.
Sen. Baker first entered the political arena in 1964, as his father was stepping out of politics, losing a U.S. Senate election to Democrat Ross Bass. Two years later, he defeated former Tennessee Governor Frank Clement, kicking off a lengthy and successful career in Washington, D.C.
Known as the "Great Conciliator" in Washington circles, Sen. Baker was the first Republican Senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction, and became the standard-bearer for moderate Republicans. He was perhaps best known for his role in the Senate's investigation of the Watergate scandal, in which he played an instrumental role in toppling President Richard Nixon, a fellow Republican.
By 1971, near the end of his first term in the Senate, Sen. Baker had made enough of a name for himself that he was asked by Nixon to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Sen. Baker wavered, and Nixon ultimately selected someone else. Two years earlier, Sen. Baker narrowly lost a bid for Minority Leader of the Senate following the death of his father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican.
After winning re-election in 1972, Sen. Baker became a ranking minority member of the Senate, where he played a key role in the Watergate investigation of Nixon. Sen. Baker was best known for his infamous question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Eventually, Sen. Baker was elected Senate Minority Leader in 1977. He served two terms in that role before Republicans seized control of the Senate in 1981 and he served two terms as Majority Leader.
In 1976, Sen. Baker was a front-runner for Gerald Ford's vice president nominee. Ford ultimately selected Bob Dole.
Four years later, Sen. Baker unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president. Despite polling second, he dropped out of the race after losing caucuses in Iowa to George H.W. Bush and the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was ultimately elected president with Bush as his vice president.
Baker retired from the U.S. Senate in 1984 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Shortly thereafter, he was tapped as Reagan's White House chief of staff, a role he served in 1987 and 1988.
Sen. Baker was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1988 but declined to seek the Republican nomination, instead retiring from politics. He re-emerged on the national scene to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush.
In 2003, the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy was set up at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In 2007, he joined Bob Dole, Tom Daschle and George Mitchell — all former Senate majority leaders — to found the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit think tank.
As Senator, Baker championed the establishment of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the 123,000-acre national park unit that protected former coal and timber lands surrounding the rugged Big South Fork of the Cumberland River between Oneida and Jamestown.
S.R. 63 through his hometown of Huntsville is named Howard H. Baker Highway in his honor.
After his first wife, Joy, died of cancer, Sen. Baker married former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassembaum in 1996.
Sen. Baker was fond of calling Scott County the "center of the universe," a claim he often repeated at state dinners and other formal events. Throughout the years, he continued to maintain his home in Huntsville, where his father's family had moved from Somerset, Ky., in 1909. Sen. Baker credited the Scott County Airport with helping him conduct world business from his home in Huntsville, without being forced to move.
On Thursday afternoon, Scott County officials were scrambling to prepare that same airport for the arrival of numerous dignitaries that will be expected for Sen. Baker's memorial service.
When Joy Baker died of cancer in 1993, numerous dignitaries, including then President George H.W. Bush, attended her funeral in Huntsville.