POLITICS: Live and Well

That describes both former Senator Howard Baker and, as he sees it, moderate Republicanism.


The Tennessean who once upon a time symbolized the moderate wing of the national Republican Party told members of Memphis’ downtown Rotary Club last week that moderation was alive and well in the G.O.P., despite one worried Rotarian’s description of the party as being dominated by “the Neocon philosophy and the far Religious Right.”

Former U.S. Senator Howard Baker, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 1980, reassured questioner Jocelyn Wurzburg that the Republican Party “will right itself.” He said of what she saw as the party’s current ultra-conservative tilt, “”That’s not permanent. The party system’s going to survive it.” The “genius of the American system” was that the two-party system managed to accommodate “a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions,” said the former senator, who predicted that a cyclical change would prevent any permanent pattern of extremism .

“Back in the ‘30s, it was thought that Republicans would never win again and that the nation was on a course that would ultimately lead to Socialism. It didn’t happen and it won’t happen here either,” Baker maintained. Change “may seem far off, but it’s always just around the corner,” he said.

The former senator, now 80, is retired and living in Huntsville in East Tennessee with his wife, former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum, who wasn’t with him last week, he said, because she was back in Kansas “moving the cattle from the summer pasture” on a farm she owned there.

Baker rose to national prominence as a member of the Senate Watergate panel in 1973 and his recurrent question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” became a catchphrase for the several investigations that ultimately led to the resignation of former president Richard Nixon.

Though the celebrity gained by Baker during his service on the Watergate committee was a spur to his presidential ambitions, it also served to make him a suspect figure among GOP conservatives, and he would lose the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan, whom he later served as chief of staff during Reagan’s presidency. Earlier in that administration, he had also been Senate Majority Leader.

Of the failure of his presidential bid, Baker joked, “Both the country and I were better off.”

On the eve of Governor Phil Bredesen’s weekend trade mission to Japan, Baker, whose most recent government service was as U.S. Ambassador to that Far Eastern nation, told the Rotarians that the former World War II adversary had become and remained “our best friend” in the world.

Baker said he had been “surprised” by the “genuine friendship and warmth’ evinced by the Japanese toward the United States and said, “They’re the most reliable support we have on most issues.”

Despite the continuing economic upsurge of the Chinese, the former ambassador said, China’s own GNP could not approach that of Japan for at least 14 years. Baker pointed out that Japan’s annual Gross National Product was second only to that of the United States and said the two nations together accounted for 40 percent of the world’s GNP. “The Japanese are still the big dog in the hunt, still the major player in the area, They’re our ally, our partner in business transactions and our ally militarily. Our whole strategy in East Asia is cornered on our relationship with Japan.”

On other subjects, Baker called for renewed efforts to develop a “civilized, socially acceptable, environmentally sound” form of nuclear energy. “Energy is the coin of the realm these days – the true measure of the wealth of a nation,” he said.

In answer to a question about President Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Baker paid tribute to a member of his audience, U.S. District Judge Julia Gibbons, who, he said, “would have been my choice.” He added, “And Julia would have been a better choice.”

Baker also offered some stroking for another audience member, the Rev. Ben Hooks, whom he praised as a “longtime friend.” He recalled once being deputized by President Reagan to speak to the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the time of Hooks’ service as national chairman of the NAACP.

Having inquired as to his possible reception by the NAACP members, Baker chuckled ruefully and said the answer from Hooks was, “Would you settle for silence?”

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