Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) passed away this past Thursday, June 26, 2014. Ironically, the very next day -- June 27th -- marked forty years to the day that the Senate Watergate Committee released its seven-volume, 1,250-page report on the scandal that brought down a president. Beginning on Thursday, May 17, 1973 ABC, CBS and NBC turned on their cameras for what would become 319 hours of national gavel-to-gavel coverage. The hearings, watched by an estimated 85% of the American public made household names out of Committee Chair Sam Ervin (D-NC), Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Lowell Weicker, Jr. (R-CT), committee counsels Sam Dash and Fred Thompson, and witnesses John Dean, Alexander Butterworth, Donald Segretti and Jeb Stuart Magruder (who passed away just two weeks before Baker). Similarly, it was those televised hearings that put Howard H. Baker, Jr. into both the public spotlight and history books. For in addition to having his face on camera for most of those 319 hours, it was Baker, the committee's ranking member, who asked what turned out to be the hearings' most famous -- and, to this day, most oft-posed -- question:
What did the president know and when did he know it?
What made his searching question all the more unique -- from today's perspective -- is that Baker was asking it not about some political adversary, but about a sitting president from his own party. Of course, Baker is -- and should be -- known for far more than merely posing an iconic question. For in addition to serving 3 terms (1967-85) in the Senate, nearly 18 months (1987-88) as President Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff, and 4 years (2001-05) as America's Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker may well have been one of the last of a dying breed -- an elected leader who knew the value of listening -- honestly listening -- to those with whom one likely disagree. In an article published this past Thursday in the National Journal, writer George E. Condon, Jr., writes that "To Baker . . . the secret of success was being what he called an 'eloquent listener.'"
In today's Maginot-lined world of hyper-partisan, take-no-enemies politics, Baker's "eloquent listening" sounds both cloyingly quaint and numbingly innocent; a relic of a bygone era when the floor of Congress had one spittoon for every five members and Democrats and Republicans went out drinking together at the end of the day. And for those who think the Tennessee senator must have been some sort of squishy-soft middle-of-the-roader . . . guess again. Howard Baker was a dyed-in-the-wool partisan Republican. Nonetheless, in listening both respectfully and eloquently to those on the other side of an issue or the aisle, Baker came to understand that there are times when placing the good of the nation above one's own partisan political agenda is both essential and patriotic. Baker can and did cosponsor legislation with Democrats. Despite being a fiscal conservative, Baker successfully teamed with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy to pass a $98 billion tax increase in 1982. Then too, Baker was largely responsible for passage of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty. At the time, most Republicans had a visceral disdain for the Jimmy Carter-initiated treaty which would give Panama control of the Panama Canal. Baker, then serving as Senate Minority Leader, listened to what supporters of the treaty had to say. He was a smart enough politician to understand that backing the treaty would likely scotch his dream of becoming the GOP's presidential nominee in 1980. Despite this, he not only personally supported the treaty; he gathered up enough Republican votes to see the treaty enacted. Why did he do it, knowing that it would likely give the presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan? Because, he later said, "It was the right thing to do."
It really was not that long ago when mature adults populated the political landscape; Senators like Clifford Case (R-NJ), Jacob Javits (R-NY), Mark Hatfield (R-OR), John Chafee and George Aiken (R-VT); Representatives like Pete McClosky (R-CA), Tom Evans (R-DE), Bob Michel (R-IL), Bill Gradison (R-OH) and Bob Kasten (R-WI). Like Howard Baker, these Republican senators and representatives knew how to work across the aisle; they understood that putting the good of the nation ahead of the needs of their party was not the abnegation of principle; it was the acceptance of responsibility.
Then too, there was a time -- and not so very long ago -- when politicians could hold fast to a political agenda without having the need to treat those who disagreed with that agenda as lepers, heretics and ignoramuses. Debate could be spirited without being spiteful; colloquies collegial, without being contumelious. In days gone by, one of the hallmarks of serving in elected office was a genuine affinity for people. After all, what is politics if not human relations writ large? Sadly, these days anger, impatience -- even abhorrence -- have become major weapons in the political playbook. Politicians used to like people -- whether you agreed with them or not. Then too, people used to treat those with whom they disagreed with a far greater degree of respect than is currently the fashion. Today we have far too many elected officials -- on both sides of the aisle -- who love humanity . . . but hate people. Back in the day, there was a genuine love for the institution on the part of its members; today, people get elected to Congress having run on a platform which calls for tearing the place apart.
When I first went to work on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1969 (the 91st Congress), J. William Fulbright, (D-AK) Everett Dirksen (R-IL) (Howard Baker's father-in-law), Stuart Symington (D-MO) and Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), were still serving in the Senate; Emanuel Celler (D-NY), Claude Pepper (D-FL) and Gerald Ford (R-MI) were still members of the House. Celler was first elected in 1923, Pepper in 1936 and Gore in 1939. Senate Majority Leader Richard Russell (D-GA) had first been elected in 1933; Speaker John McCormack (D-MA) in 1928. At that time, Congress possessed an unbelievable amount of what we now call "institutional memory." There was a reverence not only for the institution but for the legislative process. And despite the fact that differences between Republicans and Democrats -- as well as between members of the same party -- could be just as sharply defined as today, these differences rarely got in the way of doing the nation's business. Not every thorny issue wound up being filibustered; few members were universally disliked. Listening was far more commonplace than it is today. Then too, in 1969, one could still rent an elegant, sizeable apartment in a turn-of-the-century building on Dupont Circle for under $200 a month. . .
If Congress is ever going to get anything done -- outside of pointing fingers and waiting for the next election -- they are going to have to take a page from Senator Howard Baker's playbook: to listen with both ears and never be afraid to reach a hand across the aisle.
Being a spellbinding orator certainly has a place on Capitol Hill.
Being an eloquent listener is far more important.
®2014 Kurt F. Stone