'The Eloquent Listener': What Made Howard Baker Great

The former Tennessee senator and White House chief of staff died Thursday at 88.

Howard Baker had his own measure of greatness in public service, one that would be recognized by few of the politicians who followed him into the Senate and even fewer of those who, as he did, run for president today. To Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, the secret to success was being what he called an "eloquent listener."

Baker had strong views and, over almost five decades in Washington, fought ferociously for them. He did that through three terms in the Senate, arriving in town as the first Republican since Reconstruction elected from Tennessee, rising to be minority and majority leader, running unsuccessfully for president and then returning to town to rescue the presidency of the man who beat him for the nomination. Along the way, he gained unusual national acclaim as a second-termer when he was a standout in the Senate hearings that looked into President Richard Nixon's conduct in the Watergate saga.

But always Baker insisted that his secret was being open to what others said—a trait he lamented as lacking in today's polarized capital. "I increasingly believe that the essence of leadership, the essence of good Senate service, is the ability to be an eloquent listener, to hear and understand what your colleagues have to say, what your party has to say, what the country has to say ... and try to translate that into effective policy," he said in 2011 in an interview with the Bipartisan Policy Center. He loved that phrase "eloquent listener," explaining, "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."

In his final years, he came to see the political polarization of Washington as "corrosive" and yearned for the days when Republicans and Democrats could talk to each other, as he did with Democratic Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the chairman of the Watergate committee. Fred Thompson, who later was to hold Baker's Senate seat, was the committee's minority counsel and marveled at what he called "the personal relationship" between Ervin and Baker. "The pressure on Senator Baker during those Watergate years was unbelievable. It was not only pressure from the White House, but from Tennessee, from Republicans, from the press .... He handled it with the equanimity that he's known for and the patience and analysis and coolness," Thompson said three years ago.

Because of Baker, Thompson called the Watergate committee "probably the last committee that really had a bipartisan investigation." But it also caused problems for Baker among Republican diehards, who later grew angry with him for his support of President Jimmy Carter's treaty to give Panama control of the Panama Canal. Baker knew the issue would hurt him when he ran for president in 1980. "That was a difficult time for me," said Baker. "It had difficult consequences." But he believed it was right and he delivered enough Republican votes to Carter to get the needed 67. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, an expert on Senate history, later described that as one of the "great moments of political courage" in the Senate.

That vote put Baker in opposition to Ronald Reagan in 1976 and helped pave the way for his loss to Reagan in the 1980 presidential primaries. But Baker, as majority leader, loyally put aside his misgivings about Reagan's economic program to deliver the votes for those programs. And when he left the Senate in 1985, he answered Reagan's call once again—though, this time, very reluctantly.

It was 1987, and Reagan's presidency was reeling from the Iran Contra scandal. The president realized he needed to dump Donald Regan, his arrogant and embattled White House chief of staff, and replace him with somebody who could soothe the tensions inside the administration and rebuild relations with Congress—somebody who would actually listen to others. Howard Baker was his choice. But Baker had other plans.

As he recalled in a 2004 interview with the Miller Center of Public Affairs Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia, Baker had gone to Florida for a family conference to get their support for another presidential candidacy in 1988. He had taken his 6-year-old grandson to the Miami Zoo when President Reagan called. When Baker's wife said he was at the zoo, Reagan quipped, "Wait until he sees the zoo I have in mind for him."

When Baker returned the call, it was with the firm determination to explain his own political plans and to respond, "I'm sorry, Mr. President, I can't do it." But he listened to Reagan, heard his anguish over the state of affairs at the White House. "I heard myself say, 'All right.' And that was the end of my good resolve," Baker rather sheepishly explained his acceptance of the chief of staff post.

It was the end of Baker's dream of being president. But it was so very typical of Baker's career. It wasn't good politics to investigate a Republican president; it wasn't good politics to support the Panama Canal treaty; it wasn't good politics to become chief of staff in a highly dysfunctional White House. By today's standards, it probably wasn't good politics to build a career on working with the other party. But that was Howard Baker, the "great conciliator" who listened to others and got things done in Washington.