Rath remembers Baker: ‘I was blessed to call him my friend’

(Editor’s Note: Former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker will perhaps always be known best for asking the famous question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” during the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s. But the Tennessean and former White House Chief of Staff had ties to New Hampshire. He ran for President in the 1980 first-in-the-nation primary, finishing behind Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Shortly thereafter, he became close friends with former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman and attorney and long-time Republican strategist Tom Rath.


(Baker died on Thursday at the age of 88. Rath remembers him fondly here.)


By Thomas D. Rath


I was blessed to call him my friend.


I first met him in the campaign for US Senate from NH in the Fall of 1980 when Sen. Baker was minority leader of the Senate, hoping to become Majority Leader. The NH seat, then held by John Durkin, was a target seat for turnover and Warren Rudman had won a highly contested GOP primary to be the Republican nominee. Sen. Baker came to NH several times in support of Warren and I went along on these visits. Baker and Rudman became very friendly very fast, both were veterans, good lawyers and shared similar views of the world.


When Warren won, helped along in no small part by the strength of Ronald Reagan, he was one of a group of freshman senators that gave the GOP the majority and elevated Howard to Majority Leader. Rudman’s relationship grew ever closer. Sen.Baker was then mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 1984 in case President Reagan did not seek a second term. Sen. Baker had formed a PAC — The Republican Majority Fund — to raise money for U S Senate candidates. He asked me to consult with the PAC and that was my first job in politics at the national level.


While the President did seek and easily win that second term, I had the chance to travel around the country with Sen. Baker raising funds and making relationships. Those times with him are among the fondest and most special memories of my life in politics. We were preparing for a run at the White House in 1988. Sen. Baker came to New Hampshire with great regularity and did all the things that would be candidates do here, mainly concentrating on getting to know folks and listening to them. By early 1987 he was ready to run. He had scheduled two last pre-announcement visits — one to Iowa and then one more here. The Iowa visit went great and we were getting ready for a  two- or three- day NH visit in February. Baker and his family went to Florida for some final family conversations.


The second Reagan term had hit some rough seas what with Iran-Contra and other issues. Don Regan was not having a good run as Chief of Staff. While Baker was in FL, he was taking his grandchildren to the zoo when he received word that the President needed to speak to him. When they connected, the President requested that Baker return to government and become his Chief of Staff. Baker did not feel he could refuse this request because of his own political ambitions and accepted.


The NH trip was cancelled and so was the 1988 campaign. Baker took over at the White House on a Sunday and called me during the next few days to ask me down to D.C. to see him. I met with him in the West Wing, got a great tour, said hello to the President and sat alone with Baker in his office. He thanked me for my help and hoped I understood his decision.


Of course I did. Then he asked me to join his staff and work with him at the White House. I was flattered beyond words and was also stunned. I had just made plans to open a law firm with three great colleagues in Concord. I declined, he understood and we remained great friends.


Sen . Baker kept close tabs on politics for the rest of his life. When I went to work for Lamar Alexander, who I had met through Sen. Baker, Baker was the most senior and respected advisor to that effort. He called regularly through the years to check in and see what I had heard about the latest rumors, gossip, etc. I loved those calls.


Howard Baker was incredibly successful at the highest levels of politics and succeeded without ever showing meanness or pettiness. He treated folks with great respect, and courtesy. He never let partisanship or political opportunity justify attacking another’s character or commitment to country. And that respect he accorded others was repaid to him, even by those who opposed him politically. There is a lesson there.


I last saw him in December of 2012 at the memorial service held in the large conference room in the Russell Senate Office Building in DC for Warren Rudman. It was a fitting location because in that room Rudman had co-chaired the Iran Contra hearings and Baker had been central to the Watergate hearings. Baker was not expected to attend because of his health, he had been hit by a stroke and had other serious issues. But he was determined to attend and he did so. He insisted on walking in and in speaking. And he did. To most it was obvious we would not see him again. As he came up the aisle to his seat, he saw me and took my hand and gave me a hug and a smile. He was my friend and I was blessed.

(Tom Rath is the founder of the Rath Young and Pignatelli law firm of Concord. He is a former Attorney General of New Hampshire, former Republican National Committeeman and has held key advisory positions on many Republican presidential campaigns.)


Author: Thomas D. Rath

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  • Mark Hounsell

    There is a great deal to glean from Tom’s tribute. Perhaps the lessons we can learn from Senator Baker’s manner will help this great country to experience a rebirth of civil political discourse? Thank you Mr. Rath. – Mark Hounsell, Conway.