Retirees, Howard Baker Are Honored

Posted September 23, 2008 at 5:08pm

The United States Capitol Historical Society will honor former Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) with its 15th annual Freedom Award tonight in Statuary Hall. He will address the reception, which also honors the six Senators and 42 Representatives who have left or are leaving office by the end of this Congress.

Baker, the son of a Congressman from Tennessee, had an illustrious political career, serving as both Minority Leader and Majority Leader of the Senate and running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Yet his life after leaving office in 1984 — the phase of life many of the retiring Members are entering — was no less interesting.

When President Ronald Reagan called Baker in 1987, the former Senator was on vacation with his family in Miami.

The two knew each other as nemeses in the 1980 presidential nominating contest that Reagan ultimately won. Although Baker had left the political life before Reagan called, the president brought Baker back to Washington, D.C., and asked him to be his chief of staff.

“I never dreamed of being anybody’s chief of staff at any time,” Baker said. “But you know, presidents are hard to turn down.”

Baker served as Reagan’s chief of staff for most of two years, meeting the former California governor every morning at 9. He said he felt the same way when President George W. Bush called him early in his first term to ask that Baker serve as ambassador to Japan. With his second wife, former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R), Baker lived in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005.

[IMGCAP(1)]Ron Sarasin, president of the historical society, said Baker impressed those who heard him when he spoke to a dinner that the group organized earlier this year. In their “fairly informal” review process, Baker met the society’s criteria for choosing someone who has advanced an understanding of freedom. The society also tries to maintain a political balance between honorees.

“Baker seemed like a very obvious choice for all his time in the Senate … and his efforts afterward,” said Sarasin, citing the former Senator’s “extreme talent and goodwill.”

During his time in the Senate, Baker was known for his performance as the senior Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee and later for his ability to unite the slim majority of Republicans. He was part of the first wave of Republican politicians who came to dominate Tennessee politics after Democrats had controlled it for decades.

Recipients of the Freedom Award aren’t always former Members of Congress. Last year the society honored former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), but the year before that, columnist David Broder was chosen. Other past recipients include House historian Robert Remini, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, former Architect of the Capitol George White and the two officers who were killed defending the Capitol in 1998.

The society normally holds two separate ceremonies, one awarding the Freedom Award and the other honoring retiring Members. This year it was easier to combine, said Sarasin, who retired from his role as a Republican Congressman from Connecticut in 1979. The society also holds a reception welcoming new Members at the beginning of each Congress.

Baker fondly remembers his own retirement, leaving as Majority Leader at the height of his political career in 1985.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said. “I had an opportunity to return to private life and to be active at a time when I was presumably still young enough and active enough to do that.”

Between presidential appointments, Baker practiced law at a firm his grandfather established in Tennessee. He also helped to found the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he will have an office and a staff. The center will promote civic engagement by developing programs and furthering research on governance and public service.

During the reception the society will also remember the eight Members who have passed away during the 110th Congress: Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and Reps. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).