Howard Baker Jr., a former Republican senator from Tennessee and one-time Senate Majority Leader known as the "Great Conciliator," died at his Tennessee home on Thursday of complications from a stroke. He was 88.
Baker became a household name in the 1970s when he served as vice chairman and the leading Republican of the Senate special committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. A Richard Nixon ally, he "believed it was a political ploy by the Democrats, that it would come to nothing," he told The Associated Press in 1992. "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." During a hearing, he asked one of the most famous lines from the case: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Baker went on to serve as Senate Minority Leader from 1977 to 1981, Senate Majority Leader from 1981 to 1985, and President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff from 1987 to 1988. A moderate Republican, he was known for brokering compromise and being well-regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike. "Sen. Baker truly earned his nickname: the Great Conciliator," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Thursday. "I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties."
Baker's first wife, Joy, died in 1993 from cancer. He married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) in 1996, the first time two people who had served in the Senate married. One of his hobbies was photography, and he brought his camera everywhere he went except one place: the Watergate hearings. "I felt that it was beneath the dignity of the event," he said. "It turned out the event had no dignity and I should have taken pictures."