That was the venue for the 1973 hearings of the Senate Watergate committee, which would bookmark a permanent place for both Tennesseans in American history. Baker, who served as chief Republican investigator on the committee, would make famous the phrase, What did the President know, and when did he know? And Thompson, a Baker protégé who served as the GOP members legal counsel, would ask the fateful question that unearthed the existence of Richard Nixons Oval Office tapes.
Baker and Thompson were revisiting the caucus room Tuesday night as the honored guests at a reception hosted by Tennessees newest senator, Lamar Alexander. Recalling the events of 30 years ago, Baker said he had been warned on the front end of the hearings of two things: that Richard Nixon was the meanest son of a bitch around, and that he was still alive.
But he made it through that minefield satisfactorily enough that he became for a spell a leading contender for the presidency himself, later serving as chief of staff for the man who bested him and other Republican contenders in 1980, Ronald Reagan.
Thompson, too, who attended the event with wife Jeri, recalled the moment of his first national attention in remarks that Alexander would characterize jocularly as Fred Thompsons last free speech. (The now former senator is resuming his acting career, as a member of the cast of TVs Law and Order.)
Tuesday nights event was one of several involving Alexander, who was the honoree himself at a Capitol Hill reception Monday night. On that occasion he was accompanied by his Tennessee Senate colleague, Bill Frist, who is the Man of the Hour these days, having ascended to the post of Senate Majority Leader in the wake of Mississippi Senator Trent Lotts resignation from that office.
Ironically, Frist was not able to make it to Tuesday nights reception, but Lott, whose remarks extolling the segregationist past of another retiring senator, centenarian Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, would eventually ensnare him and cause him to give up his leadership post, was present.
Ive seen better days, but youve been fine, the Mississippian told a female well-wisher. In his welcoming remarks later, host Alexander would make a point of acknowledging the presence of Lott, whom he termed an "old friend."
Also there Tuesday night was newly sworn-in 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, who has been named a GOP assistant whip and related with some awe the fact that she had been assigned two cell phones, two Blackberries [email devices] and a pager. (Blackburn was scheduled for a round Wednesday night on the Jim Lehrer News Report on PBS.)
Taking note of some partisan bickering on the Senate floor Tuesday (which, incidentally, Baker was visiting for the first time since he left that body in 1985), Alexander noted that he had toted his personal Bible in for the swearing-in and said, If it stays like this, maybe I should bring it every time.
Besides Alexander and Blackburn, other new members of the Tennessee congressional delegation sworn in Tuesday were the 4th Districts Lincoln Davis and the 5th Districts Jim Cooper, both Democrats. Cooper had previous represented the 6th District but vacated that post to make a 1994 run for the Senate against Thompson.
Among the Memphians on hand Tuesday night were District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, former Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, GOP patriarch Lewis Donelson, Ed Roberson, David Kustoff, and Jim and Kathy Priestley.