Former Senate Leader Howard Baker dies

06/26/2014 1:20 PM

06/27/2014 6:09 AM

Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate majority leader who wanted to know when President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate--and when he knew it--died Thursday.

Baker, 88, a Tennessee Republican, also served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush’s first term.

He was best known for his 18 years in the Senate. Baker was first elected in 1966, and instantly became a potential star.

He made an effort to succeed his father-in-law, Everett Dirksen, as Republican leader, coming up short in his first bid in 1969.He won the post in 1977, and when Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981 became majority leader, shepherding some of Reagan’s most ambitious programs through the Senate, notably the 1981 25 percent three year tax cut. Baker was known for his gentle manner, as well as an ability to work with all ideologies and with Democrats.

He was often mentioned as presidential material, but his one bid, in 1980, fell far short. His biggest moment on the national stage came in 1973. A member of the committee investigating the Watergate burglary and related events, he asked "What did the president know and when did he know it?" The answer would ultimately doom Nixon’s presidency.

Baker did not run for re-election in 1984. In 1987, Reagan, battered by the Iran-contra scandel, asked Baker to become chief of staff.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Baker’s death to the Senate.

“Senator Baker was a true path-breaker. He served as Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican Senator since Reconstruction. He served as America’s first Republican Majority Leader since the time of Eisenhower. And he served his nation with distinction as a member of the U.S. Navy, as Chief of Staff to President Reagan, and as our country’s Ambassador to Japan,” McConnell recalled.

“Senator Baker truly earned his nickname: the Great Conciliator. I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties.”

Added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada: “He was an earnest man, who worked with any and all members of this body in passing legislation good for America.”

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