Hundreds turn out for final goodbye to Sen. Baker

The grandsons of former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. turn their grandfather's casket over to an honor guard following Tuesday's funeral service at Huntsville's First Presbyterian Church. (Independent Herald photo/Ben Garrett)
The grandsons of former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. turn their grandfather's casket over to an honor guard following Tuesday's funeral service at Huntsville's First Presbyterian Church. (Independent Herald photo/Ben Garrett)


HUNTSVILLE — Some came by plane; some by car — some with security escorts flanking them on either side; some without. But, one after another, they came.

From the highest of the highest — including Vice President Joe Biden — to citizens who got as close as the U.S. Secret Service would allow and craned their necks in hopes of merely catching a glimpse of the coffin, hundreds showed up here Tuesday afternoon to honor former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr.

Outside First Presbyterian Church, where Baker attended services most of his life, all was calm and still as the funeral progressed. With security details stopping all traffic in the vicinity of Woodland Place, and with a temporary flight restriction in place due to the vice president's presence, an unusual quietness enveloped the area Sen. Baker called home — his estate is just a short distance from the church — for most of his life. Aside from the sounds of the choir drifting from the church, the only sounds were the quiet murmering of the crowd that assembled outside. Dozens of Scott Countians gathered around the intersection of Woodland Place and Litton Covered Bridge Road — as close as they were allowed by Secret Service agents and local law enforcement — in hopes of catching a glimpse of the proceedings. Some brought their lawn chairs; others stood reverently, dressed in their Sunday best even though they weren't going to be anywhere near the funeral itself.

Among those in attendance was Scott County General Sessions Court Judge Jamie Cotton, who said he simply wanted to show his respects to a man who had meant much to Scott County.

"We will never realize the impact that he had," Judge Cotton said as he spoke of Baker's many accomplishments — chief among them the establishment of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Working in close concert with his Senate colleague John Sherman Cooper, of Kentucky, Baker helped save some of the most diverse landscape east of the Mississippi River from being flooded by the damming of the Big South Fork River. Today, those lands are part of the fifth-largest national park in the eastern United States.

Inside First Presbyterian Church, a capacity crowd paid their last respects to the 88-year-old Baker, who died Thursday from complications of stroke. There were tears, but there was also laughter. There was mourning, but also celebration — celebration of the life and achievements of one of the most respected figures in modern American politics; of Scott County's most accomplished citizen.

Lamar Alexander, Baker's first aide after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966, who went on to become governor of Tennessee and currently serves the state in the U.S. Senate, delivered the eulogy.

"He was an eloquent listener," Alexander said of Baker. "He said in 2011, 'There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say. You don't have to agree, but you have to hear what they've got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you'll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership.'"

Among those in attendance at Tuesday's memorial service were several political figures who Baker mentored during his time in Washington: current U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson, current U.S. Senator Bob Corker, former Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, current Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, former Knoxville mayor and U.S. ambassador Victor Ashe, and current Congressman Jimmy Duncan.

Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, joined Vice President Biden at the service, as did former Vice President Al Gore.

Alexander told the story of how Baker's father-in-law, Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, of Illinois, campaigned for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in 1960, before a crowd of 30,000 at the Illinois State Fair.

"Seated on the platform behind him were Dirksen's daughter Joy, and her husband Howard Henry Baker Jr., a 34-year-old lawyer from Huntsville, Tennessee, who looked about 24," Alexander said. "'Jack Kennedy is a nice young man,' Dirksen was saying, 'But all they can say he has ever done was serve on a PT boat in World War II.' Turning to his son-in-law with a flourish, Dirksen said, 'Why, my own son-in-law, Howard Baker Jr., was on a PT boat in World War II, and I've never heard anyone suggest that he was qualified to serve in any public office.'"

As it turned out, Baker's political career was near at hand — not surprising, considering that his father, Howard Baker Sr., served Tennessee in Congress from 1951 until his death in 1964.

Baker narrowly lost his first U.S. Senate race in 1964 — Alexander said he "probably would have won if presidential candidate Barry Goldwater hadn't stopped at the Knoxville airport a few days before the election and promised to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority" — but ran again in 1966, and won.

"I remember standing at that same airport being embarrassed by his prediction to the media that he would win by 100,000 votes, and then, a few days later, he did just that," Alexander said.

Alexander drew laughter from the crowd of mourners again when he told another story about Sen. Dirksen's interaction with his son-in-law.

"(Baker's) maiden address in the Senate lasted about an hour," Alexander said. "Afterwards, he asked Senator Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, 'How did I do?' 'Howard,' Dirksen replied, 'perhaps you should occasionally enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought.'"

But when Baker talked, people usually listened — whether his colleagues in congress, on either side of the aisle, his eventual boss, President Ronald Reagan, or the folks back home on the courthouse steps in Huntsville, Tenn.

After finishing as a leading candidate for Nixon's vice president in 1968, and again for Gerald Ford's vice president in 1976, Baker was on his way to ascending to the top of the Republican Party. In fact, he did that in 1977, when he was named Senate Minority Leader — the top Republican in Congress. He served as the Senate's top GOP member for eight years, eventually replacing Democrat stalwart Robert Byrd as Majority Leader when the Republicans took the majority after the 1980 elections.

After the Republicans took control, Baker's first message to Byrd was that Byrd could keep his office space that was typically reserved for the Majority Leader. Instead, Baker had new offices added; today they're called the "Howard Baker Rooms," and he often claimed that the view from those rooms was second best in Washington — second only to the White House.

"Having softened up Byrd, Baker then said, 'Senator Byrd, I'll never learn the rules as well as you know them, so I'll make a deal with you: I won't surprise you if you won't surprise me,'" Alexander said. "Byrd replied, 'Let me think about it.' The next day he agreed. And they ran the Senate together for four more years."

Before delivering the eulogy of his mentor and friend, Alexander spoke to members of the press outside. He recalled Baker's days as Ronald Reagan's White House Chief of Staff.

"President Reagan and Howard began each day by telling each other a little story," he said. "They told a lot of stories. I always felt a little better about our country knowing we had two men at the top with such temperament."

Baker was known as Washington's "Great Conciliator." As Senator and again as White House Chief of Staff, he often brokered deals with Democrats to help advance important policy items. He was not cut from the usual mold of partisan politics. He supported civil rights when most southerners didn't, worked with the Democrat Byrd to find 68 votes to ratify the controversial Panama Canal treaty — despite receiving letters from several Republican senators asking for him to resign as the party's Senate leader — and did not hesitate when his role as ranking Republican on a Senate committee investigating Watergate forced him to bring down his friend Nixon.

In short, Baker's life was a life of service. It was a tradition he passed on to members of his family. As members of the press waited outside in sweltering heat at Tuesday's memorial service, his daughter, Cissy, more than once had bottled water sent out to reporters.

But Baker's career could perhaps best be summed up by saying that politics did not change Howard Baker; Howard Baker changed politics. And that, perhaps, is why he always returned to his Scott County home when his duties in Washington were complete.

"Roy Blount Jr. says you start getting into trouble when you stop sounding like where you grew up," Alexander said. "Howard Baker never stopped sounding like where he grew up. He always went home to Huntsville, which he called the 'center of the known universe.'"

Of all the politicians with whom Baker was affiliated, there were perhaps none who knew him better than Alexander — who spent years as his aide. One of Alexander's duties was writing Baker's speeches.

"I once asked to see him privately to determine if there was some problem with our relationship because I had learned that he never said in his speeches any of the words that I had written," Alexander said. "'Lamar,' he replied, 'we have a perfect relationship. You write what you want to write — and I'll say what I want to say.'"

Alexander said that Baker served as a mentor to many who would go on to become leaders themselves.

"Occasionally a young person will ask me, 'How can I become in politics?'" he said. "My answer is always this: Find someone you respect, volunteer to help him or her do anything legal, and learn all you can from them. That's what I did.

"How fortunate we were to know, to be inspired by, and to learn from Tennessee's favorite son and one of our country's finest leaders, Howard Baker."

More: Photo gallery from Tuesday's memorial service

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