I shall not look upon his like again.
— Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 2
In his 1999 book, “Tennessee Senators: 1911-2001,” former U.S. Majority Leader Bill Frist writes that between 1980-84, members of the U.S. Senate and their aides selected Tennessee’s own Howard Baker Jr. as the most effective, persuasive and liked senator on Capitol Hill. They thought the Republican, who was serving as majority leader then, set the standard for others to follow.
“Privately, many Democrats were among his strongest boosters,” noted Frist, who considered Baker to be his political guru.
There has been much said and written in the last few days about Baker’s remarkable life in politics. News of his death Thursday at the age of 88 saddened both Republicans and Democrats alike. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker released a statement noting that when he thinks “of the ultimate statesman, the very first person who comes to my mind is Howard Baker.”
Likewise, Gov. Bill Haslam said: “Tennessee has lost a hero and a distinguished statesman and I have lost a friend and mentor.” The Republican governor also said that Baker taught him “an important lesson when I worked for him 35 years ago. Anytime he was sitting across the desk from someone in disagreement, he told himself to keep in mind: You know — the other fellow might be right.”
A similar refrain was also heard coming from Democrats. Roy Herron, the chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, praised Baker’s ability to reach across the partisan aisle.
“Senator Baker was partisan, but he was patriotic,” Herron, a former state senator, said. “And his patriotism rose above his partisanship.”
Baker truly believed in statesmanship, bipartisanship and civility. Those weren’t just words to Baker — he practiced what he preached. And those traits helped him to go far in his political career. As a lawyer, Baker was adept at knowing when to compromise and when to stick to his guns. It was a talent that served him well as Senate majority leader, and later as Reagan’s chief of staff.
I wonder, however, if Baker could win a Republican Primary today. He would likely be branded a RINO by the far right and called a sell-out by tea partiers. That’s certainly the knock on his two current protegees in the U.S. Senate — Corker and Lamar Alexander, who is involved in a Republican Primary battle with a candidate who has been going down the ridiculous checklist for running a tea party campaign. As such, state Rep. Joe Carr hasn’t shown any originality, but he does deserve points for tenacity.
If he does indeed defeat Alexander in the August primary, Democrats might have a shot at the seat in November. And an Alexander loss would signal a profound change in the Republican Party in Tennessee.
At any rate, Baker was truly the last of his kind. He was compassionate and generous, yet he held steadfast to his principles without losing his civility. Yes, Horatio, we will not see his like again.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/JCPressRobertHouk. Follow him at Twitter.com/houkRobert