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Howard H. Baker Jr.: Teaching Us to Listen

07/01/2014 08:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2014

"When speaking at a funeral, remember to mention the departed at least as often as you mention yourself." So quoted Lamar Alexander, the sole speaker at his mentor Howard H. Baker Jr.'s funeral today here in Huntsville, Tenn. That summed up the courtly, elegant, determined, loving, steely and generous father, grandfather, husband, patriot, public servant and most of all, friend.

Howard Baker's funeral service would have filled the Washington Cathedral or some other grand space befitting a man of his place in history, but he wanted to be put to rest here, in his home church, steps from the his childhood home, yards from the one in which he lived most of his life. His church, the Presbyterian Church, officially seats 97 people in the two-decades old sanctuary. Think an inverted Noah's arc, knotty pine floor planks in the modified A-frame ceiling supported by the sorts of struts that keep a ship afloat in the roughest seas. Even the stain glass window is understated, but powerful: open, welcoming, Godly, undergirded by three words: "Lord of Lords."

18 pews. One small cross. Eight cylindrical chandeliers. Two large pots of white hydrangeas on the stage, flanking the Senator's flag-draped coffin. Old friends shook hands. Dignitaries, mostly from the political world, arrived quietly. At 12:45 on the dot, the pianist began playing light, but soulful hymns as the 17-member choir sat by, looking back at us.

At about 1:10, Vice President Biden, accompanied by former Vice President Gore, took his seat. The service began, presided over by Rev. Martha Anne Fairchild, the pastor here for nearly 20 years. The opening hymn was all four verses of "America the Beautiful." The readings included that elemental Ecclesiastes, the one that in its description of times and seasons truly reminds in its pristine simplicity that there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

The pastor spoke not of the great man's deeds, but of him. Talking about Howard Baker agreeing to be elected to the church Board of Directors at a very busy time in his life, she had made clear to him that he need not come to the meetings. She recalled that he was slightly offended, saying, "I made a commitment when I accepted election" and I'll live up to it. And he did, never once missing a meeting, calling her when he was nominated to serve as Ambassador to Japan, apologizing for having to resign before his term ended.

Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, the governor of Tennessee and so many others of high office present listened, but did not speak. And after the twenty one-gun salute, after taps, after everyone left the graveside, there stood the simple casket of the simple man who changed the world.

Those questions he asked, "What did the President know and when did he know it?" made him famous and ultimately brought down a president, even as Senator Baker attempted mightily to make our political system more loyal to voters than money. We may forget that he sacrificed his national political ambition when in 1978 he worked with Democrats in the Senate to pass the Panama Canal Treaty. I remember as a young man riding in the car from here in East Tennessee to take my sister back to Indiana University and there, along the flat farmland, were signs decrying Howard Baker for selling out the nation. He did not; he rather lived up to our nation's word and saw a future without war in our hemisphere.

In 1980, when he ran for president, we may not remember that he always and unquestionably put family first. And we may not want to acknowledge that while balance in life does not always achieve an immediate goal, it does in fact lead to greatness, for only a man who knows himself can know the world. And Howard Baker knew himself.

Howard Baker could have won a fourth and probably fifth term in the US Senate, but he chose to leave after 18 years, partially, at least, because of the already increasingly partisan politics of the time. Prepared for one last run for the presidency, Senator Baker had gathered his family in Florida in February 1987. He tells the story that President Reagan reached his wife Joy on the phone, looking for the senator. Joy said, "He's at the zoo with the kids," to which the president said, "Just wait until he hears about the zoo I have waiting for him."

Senator Baker tells of his meeting with President Reagan. The senator was steeled and ready, so when the president asked him to become Chief of Staff, Senator Baker said, "My mind said no, but my lips said yes."

A few years on, when Sam Skinner was called to become President Bush's chief of staff, the first person he wanted to see was Howard Baker. The story goes that Senator Baker told Mr. Skinner to take out a yellow pad and pen. And then, Senator Baker said, "Start writing down the names of all of your friends, because you'll never have more friends than you do today." There's a lesson in that for all of us.

I'm not of his political party, so imagine my surprise when I was invited to the Bush White House for Howard Baker's swearing-in as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Once installed, I made my way there to visit with him. At lunch, the waiter took orders; the Ambassador had a martini, so I joined him. When time for a second round came, I first demurred until the Ambassador placed his order. Pausing for a few beats, I decided to join in, to which I was greeted with, "Good boy, Rick."

At that same lunch, opining on North Korea and Iraq, but always humble, the Ambassador said first, "Martinis make me smart." What he said next was prescient and wise, but he always kept the context: he's just a man.

In 1991, Senator Baker and I started a business together advising and investing in Russia. As I like to say, had I followed my own advice, I probably never would have invested there. That was one of the roughest periods of my life for so many reasons. But sitting here today, among people whose lives were shaped by a man who changed history, I realize the gift he gave me. Howard Baker believed in me more than I believed in myself. Think about that. Imagine having a mentor, a business partner, a friend, someone who has seen every possible character and crisis, every imaginable national security threat, who presided over the Watergate hearings at a time when some thought our nation might fail, imagine that man taking the time and giving the attention to believe in me.

And it was not just me. There are hundreds like that. As the pastor said today, Howard Baker gave the gift of allowing us to be heard. He may only have a minute, but for that minute, you had 100 percent of him.

Yes, I'm a partisan. And yes I believe in people. I leave here today reminded that they can coexist; in fact, they must. I carry with me the grace of a man whose hand led me to where I am. I hope to return to the world a bit of that grace, one person at a time, with the memory of Howard Baker's hand on my shoulder as I extend mine to others.

(All opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.)