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VOL. 43 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 22, 2019

Senate could use more statesmen like Howard Baker

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Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican, was swayed by facts during Watergate hearings.

-- Photograph Provided

Sen. Howard Baker was a little late that day for his talk on the Ole Miss campus, but we in the audience were a forgiving lot. We knew he had some pretty important business going on back in Washington. He explained the delay when he came in.

President Richard Nixon had just decided to turn over the much-debated White House tapes to a federal judge, but not to the Senate Watergate Committee, of which Baker was the vice chairman.

“I hope some sort of agreement can be reached,” Baker said, an optimism that wouldn’t be rewarded.

The date was Oct. 23, 1973. Three days earlier, Nixon had ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the two top Justice Department officials refused and resigned in protest before the solicitor general, Robert Bork, carried out the request. It quickly became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

All in all, they were pretty heady times for a 20-year-old journalism major, my first of what are now three presidential impeachment dramas.

And, so far, still the best, if “best” is a word you can apply. Constitutional crises tend to add more than a little tension to the standard ebb and flow of current events.

Back then, there was also an underlying calm, the feeling that whatever the institutional peril the fate of the president and the country lay in the hands of serious and competent members of Congress.

Members like Baker, the Tennessean whose father had been a congressman and whose father-in-law, Everett Dirksen, had been a Senate minority leader. It was Baker who came to sum up the case against Nixon in a single memorable question:

“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

It can’t have been easy for Baker. Nixon was, after all, the leader of his party. In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, he recalled his initial assessment of the scandal:

“I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” he said. “But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

Imagine what Baker, known as “the Great Conciliator,” would think about today’s hopelessly divided Congress and an unmoored president who makes Nixon look like an amateur crook.

Should articles of impeachment pass the House and the matter move on to the Senate, what are the chances that Tennessee can count on a senator who will live up to Baker’s example of putting country before party?

Let’s see. Marsha Blackburn?

No.

Lamar Alexander, voluntarily unburdened by reelection concerns, could be another story. In a statement early last month, he said impeachment would be a “mistake,” adding, “An election, which is just around the corner, is the right way to decide who should be president.”

He has since gone into wait-and-see mode, and his office provided this as his current operative position:

“If the House impeaches the president, the Senate would in effect be the jury. There would be many twists and turns between now and a Senate trial. Therefore, as a potential juror, I will have nothing more to say about impeachment until all the evidence is presented and all the arguments are made.”

Alexander, a former legislative aide to Baker, said upon Baker’s death in 2014: “No one had more influence on my life over the last half-century.”

He might soon have a chance to do his mentor proud. We’ll see if he’s up to it.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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