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."