Howard Baker: Still Alive

Posted November 17, 2004 at 6:42pm

Call off the undertakers.

In an unfortunate turn of events, HOH inaccurately wrote Wednesday that former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) is deceased. Well, close enough. Battling post-election hallucinations, HOH referred to Baker as “the late Sen. Howard Baker” rather than “former Sen. Howard Baker.”

[IMGCAP(1)] HOH, foiled by the 12-hour time difference, could not reach Baker in Japan, the current abode of the Senator-turned-ambassador and his wife, the great — but not the late — former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker (R-Kan.).

But we did speak with Jim Range, a partner at the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, who is a longtime friend of, and aide to, Sen. Baker. When HOH expressed great anxiety and remorse about the error, Range laughed mightily and said, “Well, what was that old saying? ‘The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’”?

Yes indeed. Mark Twain said that after a London paper reported that he had died. “I think he’d like that quote from me” to run in the paper, Range said, still laughing at — and not with — HOH.

Range, who served as chief counsel to Baker when he was Majority Leader, said Baker is “perky and feeling great” after undergoing open-heart surgery earlier this year. Range said he, Baker and other friends — including John Tuck, a former Reagan administration official, and Jim Duff, a managing partner at Baker Donelson — had a blast at the Capitol Grille about three weeks ago when the Bakers visited Washington.

“He is alive and well and serving his country well in Japan,” Range assured us.

Another longtime Baker staffer and friend, Fred Marcum, said that he spoke with Baker to wish him a happy birthday this week, on Nov. 15. “He had a cold. But other than that he was great,” Marcum said.

Baker turned 79 on Monday. We wish him a very happy birthday … and many more.

Birthday Boys. Bicameral birthdays brought levity to two otherwise dreary conference committee meetings in this lame-duck session. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who turned 55 on Wednesday, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who turns 81 today, were honored in separate celebrations.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the man behind the cake for Boehner, who, as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, presided over the conference to reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act. Kennedy, the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had learned the night before that it was to be Boehner’s birthday, so he arranged for a staffer to get a cake.

A packed room of lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters in the conference committee room expected Kennedy to begin his speech with the usual save-the-children and preserve-the-safety-net talk. Instead, he opened by saying, “There’s a lot of important work to do here but nothing more important than what we’re about to do.”

People looked around incredulously. Kennedy paused and, giving his cue to the kid with the cake, said again, “What we’re about to do. … What we’re about to do. …” and — voila! — the kid with the cake appeared and Kennedy (who HOH thinks has long harbored fantasies of taking his song-and-dance act on Broadway) led the room in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Boehner blushed and thanked everyone. Then the Republicans and Democrats in the room went back to scratching each other’s eyeballs out.

Where Women Rule. Meanwhile, over in a meeting of the conference committee on the foreign operations appropriations bill, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) took charge of honoring Stevens. It wasn’t as rambling as some of his more memorable soliloquies on the Senate floor, but still, it was vintage Byrd.

“There was a time when I thought 81 was old,” Byrd said to his longtime colleague — and occasional nemesis — Stevens, who does, indeed, turn 81 today. Byrd turns 87 on Saturday.

Then, he recited this poem by an unknown author:

“Count your garden
By the flowers,
Never by the leaves that fall.
Count your joys,
By golden hours,
Never when life’s worries call.
Count your nights,
By stars, not shadow.
Count your days
By smiles, not tears.
And as each days awaken,
Count your age
By friends, not years.”

After reading the poem, Byrd turned his attention to the ladies in the room, praising the number of women serving today compared to his first year in the Senate, in 1958, when there was but one female Senator.

He looked around the room and saw Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). He called Mikulski “the firebrand from Maryland.” Of Kaptur, Byrd got that faraway look in his eye and said, “I would have fallen in love with her 40 years ago.”

Kaptur was charmed, telling HOH later, “Surely, I was awestruck completely to be so complimented by the legendary, eloquent, and great dean of the Senate from West Virginia, the good gentleman Mr. Byrd.”

Centrist Coalition: Too Centrist. Now that Republicans have successfully smeared Democrats in the 2004 campaign as obstructionists, nervous Senate centrists aren’t sure what to call themselves anymore.

During a Centrist Coalition meeting on Wednesday, one member of the group — who, sources say, had the support of a few others — floated a proposal to change the name of the group to the Bipartisan Coalition. One source said it was a Republican idea. But another said it was the idea of a certain Connecticut Senator who ran for president in 2004.

Either way, some Democrats close to the Centrist Coalition aren’t pleased with the idea. “I think it’s tragic. If centrist is now a bad word we’re going to be in for a very long two years with the new Republican majority,” one Democratic source said.

A Republican centrist source said while there were “some discussions” about changing the group’s name, members decided to keep it the Centrist Coalition for now. The thinking was that changing the group’s name to something like the Bipartisan Coalition would attract other marginalized or maverick members such as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the GOP source said.

“At the end of the day, everyone decided to keep it the Centrist Coalition,” the source said, adding, however, that the decision could still change.

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