06/30/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Remembering Howard Baker


Howard Baker had a genius for getting to the nub of things. His question at the Watergate hearings, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" became the touchstone of those historic proceedings. He didn't present himself as a genius, of course. He just seemed practical. But when his words came out, in that gentle Tennessee drawl, they invariably re-centered the discussion.  

You never felt Howard Baker was making an argument, or debating you. He always seemed to be calling it as he saw it. That's one of the reasons he had that rare quality -- almost impossible to find in Washington nowadays -- of moral authority. People trusted him. 

He was called the "great conciliator." I'm not sure I like the description. Yes, he could bring people together. But it was not because he had a knack for splitting the difference, as, say, Henry Clay is remembered. I can't imagine Howard Baker fashioning the Missouri Compromise. He had more principle than that. He obviously had a gift for seeing the merit of different positions, and was able to bring warring factions together. But in most cases, I suspect, he succeeded not by splitting the difference but by illuminating the merits of different positions. 

The obituaries don't do justice to his personality. Howard Baker was fun. He loved telling stories, especially on himself. Soon after he was nominated to be ambassador to Japan (at age 75), I asked him how it happened that he decided to take the job. He recounted the story: "Well, I was at a dinner with the President, and he said, Howard, I need to you to be ambassador to Japan. Out of the blue. I said OK. When I got home that night, Nancy asked me how the dinner was, and I said it was nice. Also, that the President asked me to be ambassador to Japan. 'What did you say?' I said OK. 'You said OK!!! Anything else?' Nope. 'Just OK? We're going to pack up and move to Japan, and you just say OK?'" Later he recounted the bureaucratic idiocies of having to spend close to $100,000 in legal fees to prepare the ambassador's financial disclosures (including the number of cattle owned by Nancy), and the hilarity of getting fitted for the required morning suit to meet the Emperor. 

Howard Baker loved life. He took his camera everywhere, and took photographs of historic events and natural beauty. He still owes me one. He and I had a shared interest in the history of dirigibles, those giant follies in the sky that floated around the globe in one brief decade of glory. He could shoot the breeze about almost any topic. He never lost the sense of wonder. 

Being friends with Howard Baker was life-enhancing. I got to know him almost 25 years ago when we were working on a law case together. He then became a sounding board when I was writing The Death of Common Sense. He opened doors for me (as a civic leader) to see the Postmaster General to try to convince him (amazingly, successfully) to surrender most of the Farley Post Office in NYC so it can be rebuilt as a new Penn Station. He signed up as an early member of the Advisory Board of Common Good. When I asked for help, he always said OK.