Connie Cass and Erik Schelzig
WASHINGTON: Former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., who cut to the core of the 1973 Watergate hearings when he asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” has died. He was 88.
Baker died Thursday at his home, according to an email distributed at the law firm where Baker was senior counsel. He died as a result of complications from a stroke suffered Saturday, the email said.
The scion of a political family, Baker served 18 years in the Senate, winning widespread respect from Republicans and Democrats alike and rising to the post of majority leader.
But it was his instantly famous question during those Senate hearings about what President Richard Nixon knew that made him an enduring household name. It instantly focused the nation’s attention on the cover-up that perhaps more than the Watergate break-in itself eventually brought down Nixon’s presidency.
It came as he was serving as vice chairman, and thus leading Republican, on the Senate committee probing the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic headquarters and the cover-up by the Nixon administration.
Watergate, though it brought Baker national recognition, marked “the greatest disillusionment” of his political career, Baker said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press.
“I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” said Baker, who had seconded Richard Nixon’s nomination at the 1968 Republican convention. “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.”
He said he always considered his time as Senate majority leader, 1981 to 1985, the high point of his political career. He called it “the second-best job in town, only second to the presidency” — an office for which he ran in 1980.
Putting aside his own reservations about Reagan’s economic proposals, Baker played a key role in passage of legislation synonymous with the “Reagan Revolution” — major tax and spending cuts combined with a military buildup.
He left the Senate with an eye to another presidential bid in 1988, but instead returned to Washington in 1987 at Ronald Reagan’s request to serve as chief of staff. He left the White House in mid-1988.
During much of the 1980s and ‘90s, Baker had to grapple with the illness of his wife, Joy. She died in 1993 after an 11-year battle with cancer.
In 1996, Baker remarried, taking as his bride Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who was about to retire from the Senate after serving three terms. It was the first time two people who had served in the Senate had gotten married.
Baker, an accomplished amateur photographer, was known to carry a camera with him wherever he went. But he didn’t take any photos during the Watergate hearings.
“I felt that it was beneath the dignity of the event,” he said years later. “It turned out the event had no dignity and I should have taken pictures.”