Richard Nixon thought Howard Baker
would be an ally on the Senate Watergate Committee. Baker had met privately
with Nixon in February 1973 to discuss committee strategy. Baker advised Nixon
that the committee would talk to lower-level witnesses first as it worked to
get the major players, like Haldeman, to appear before the committee.
John Dean testified before the
Watergate Senate Committee the week of June 25, 1973. For two long days, Dean
read from prepared text and then answered questions from Committee members. It
wasn't until June 29 that Senator Baker asked the question of all questions:
What did the President know, and when did he know it? Dean talked. And talked. Soon,
others talked, and the drama escalated, thanks to conversations secretly
recorded by Nixon (including the infamous "smoking gun" tape). Nixon
resigned in August 1974.
Baker had, at first, thought Nixon
innocent. He believed at first that it was a political ploy by Democrats to
discredit the president. A few weeks into the hearings, he came to realize
Watergate was more than partisan politics. Years later, Baker described
Watergate as "the greatest disillusionment of my political career."
Howard Baker, a man greatly skilled
at consensus building, was a son of Tennessee. His father served in the U.S.
Congress from 1951 through 1964. Baker's U.S. Senate term ran from 1967 to 1985,
and he served as Senate Minority Leader from 1977 to 1981. Baker's first speech
in the Senate chambers went on, and on, and on. At the conclusion of his
speech, he asked his father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, what he
thought of the speech. Dirksen replied, "Howard, maybe occasionally you
should enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought."
Baker described his hometown of
Huntsville, Tennessee as "the center of the universe." Shortly after
Baker died, his daughter Cissy said, "When he was elected and we moved to
Washington, Dad told us, 'Don't ever forget that Tennessee is your home.' And