Capitol & State

Remembering Howard Baker, a signature senator and great American

Three years ago, I had the privilege of speaking to Sen. Howard Baker, a man who played a major role in my interest in politics.

Baker, who died Thursday at 88, was kind enough to take my phone call to discuss the passing of Idaho Sen. Jim McClure at age 86.

"He was steady, and when I got to positions where I could, I always depended on him for advice," Baker told me. "He was special, and he certainly was my friend."

Baker and McClure were contemporaries in age and service. McClure was born in December 1924, Baker in November 1925. Both were first elected to Congress in 1966, McClure to Idaho's 1st Congressional District, Baker to the Senate from Tennessee. Six years later, McClure joined Baker in the Senate, where they served together until Baker's retirement in 1985. McClure retired in 1991.

Both Republicans, they also had the unshakable integrity that made them the best of public servants.

Baker went on to run for president, served as chief of staff to President Reagan and was ambassador to Japan. He remained close to McClure and his wife, Louise, and Baker's voice reflected his sadness. I remember thinking he sounded brittle and couldn't resist telling him how much I admired him.

The summer I turned 15, Baker was thrust on the national scene by his probity in the "Watergate Summer," which included live hearings of the special Senate Watergate Committee's exploration of wrongdoing in the Nixon White House. I spent hours in front of the TV. Vice Chairman Baker and Chairman Sam Ervin, D-N.C., were my favorites.

A year later, I was at a debate camp at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and watched Nixon resign and Vice President Gerald Ford work to heal the country with dignity and grace.

About then, my Dad asked whether I might be interested in being a page in the U.S. House. Among his clients was Congressman Don Edwards, D-Calif., who made a fortune in the title insurance business in what is now called Silicon Valley. My Dad, a partner at Peat Marwick, did his taxes.

In May 1975, I got a letter from Edwards, congratulating me on having been accepted by the Committee on Personnel, chaired by Rep. Thomas Morgan, D-Pa.

"I think it would be appropriate if you dropped a short note of thanks to Chairman Morgan and to Congressman B.F. Sisk," wrote Edwards, who taught me something about good manners. "There is lively competition for these appointments and these two gentlemen were most helpful."

Sometimes, I'd get over to the Senate, where I visited the famous Watergate hearing room and saw Baker stride by. Calling home, I'd spout the list of lawmakers I'd seen — Goldwater and Kennedy, together! — with special attention to those with whom I'd shared an elevator.

After a year delivering letters, packages and flags flown over the Capitol for delivery to constituents, I graduated from Capitol Page High School. Sen. Hubert Humphrey was our commencement speaker, signing my diploma, "HHHumphrey."

Returning to California, I earned my bachelor's in political science and then decided to be a reporter. This fall, I'll mark 30 years at the Statesman, all but two of them covering politics. For all the conflict, my experience has been that the vast majority of those involved in public life try to do the right thing and follow their conscience.

Baker and McClure were broad-minded, in my eye a vital quality for the best of our leaders.

They were no fans of big government; restraint was a core value. But they believed politics, practiced correctly, could be noble. Not a bad thing to remember in these days of rancor. We're a resilient people.

So Godspeed, Senator Baker, you made the world a better place.