The eloquent listener 

Howard Baker was a man for all seasons — except this one.

How quaint the photograph is. It is still in my head, unforgettable.

Two men are posed, their heads lowered, one toward the other, signifying they are in urgent conversation. The older man is all jowls, the younger all sideburns.

The task they face is momentous, terrifying. They are gathering the evidence that will lead to the resignation of a president in August 1974.

Looking back now, that moment in the Watergate crisis is not what makes the photo of Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker so remarkable. No, the picture of the two men captures a moment when Democrats and Republicans worked together.

Can you imagine?

Yes, a Republican U.S. senator, Howard Baker of Tennessee, was conferring with the chairman of the Watergate committee, Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Viewed in a certain context, Ervin’s job was free of risk for him. He was a Democrat pursuing a Republican president. Baker’s task, however, represented the greatest test of his life. He was pursuing his party’s president; Nixon had thought so much of Baker he had once asked him to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ervin is long gone. Baker is 86. The photogenic looks that probably helped land him in the Senate — he was the first Republican elected from Tennessee since Reconstruction — have given way to the inevitabilities of age. As the years have transformed him, the years have transformed his party. Baker, once called The Great Conciliator, might not even have a place in it. He was not vindictive; 24 years after Baker helped ease out Nixon for subverting the Constitution, a Republican House majority impeached Bill Clinton for fooling around with an intern. Baker was a conservative, but no one ever put the word severe in front of the label. He was so admired that when Ronald Reagan needed someone to pull him out of the muck of Iran-Contra, he made Baker his chief of staff.

Baker would not dismiss the needs of half the nation. He would not shout accusations to take advantage of a diplomatic tragedy. He would not deride as a socialist or a Nazi a president he disagreed with. Baker has too much respect for the office. While Republicans want to effectively dismantle the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave African-Americans the unimpeded right to vote, Baker, as Senate Majority Leader, once sweated extending it because he didn’t want his party viewed as opposing this most basic right. He has even been willing to consider the notion that people should be required to have health insurance and that the mere mention of it is not an assault on the American way.

Maybe Baker’s traits are in his DNA; perhaps his genes made him hew to the middle. His father served in Congress. His first wife, who died of cancer, was the daughter of Republican Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen. His second wife is former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, who is the daughter of the GOP’s 1936 presidential candidate, Alf Landon.

It was Baker who bravely posed the question that has been borrowed a thousand times, in a thousand contexts: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” It was Baker who first observed that a cover-up is almost always worse than the crime, a notion we now take as assumed.

But this is not why we should be homesick for Howard Baker. We should because he believed more in his country than in his party.

Earlier this year, Baker said that the most important act in politics was not to be a speaker unfettered by facts, but to be an “eloquent listener.”

The silence of an eloquent listener does not fly on TV. Silence does not gin up the base, and words like these only provoke boos: “If we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don’t like, we would soon stop functioning altogether.”

The quaint Howard Baker uttered that, too. Because eloquent listening is considered a character flaw now, no one has heard him.

Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa. © Florida Voices.

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