July 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Remembering the man who questioned a rogue president

Howard Baker, center, famously asked President Richard Nixon who knew what when during the Watergate scandal. (AP)

Howard Baker, who died last week at age 88, will be remembered in tributes this week for many things: The way he broke the century-long Democratic hold on Tennessee. His rise up the ladder in Washington politics. His uncommonly decent reign as Senate majority leader. His marriages — almost certainly the only man who could have claimed this — to daughters of two of the most prominent Republicans in American history. His thwarted presidential ambitions. His wise, calm stewardship of the last years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as White House chief of staff.

But Baker will be remembered for generations for one thing. He asked one of the most important questions in American history.

It was a question so basic, so innocent in its approach and assumptions, so intelligent in its formulation and yet so trenchant that it ferreted out the truth at the height of the Watergate tensions — and it was so piercing in its clarity that it became a cliche:

What did the president know and when did he know it?

What the president (Richard Nixon) knew (loads, it turned out) and when he knew it (earlier than he let on) were the issues at the center of the gravest constitutional crisis in modern American history. By asking that question — formulated, according to folklore, by Fred Thompson, later an actor, senator and presidential candidate — Baker almost surely answered it as well.

The question in effect ended the Nixon presidency, coming as it did from a loyal Republican — he was the top GOP figure on the Senate Watergate committee — who was so highly regarded by the White House that he once was offered a Supreme Court seat by Nixon himself. (The seat eventually went to William Rehnquist.)

Baker was serious-minded, to be sure, but he was also companionable, and not in the old-fashioned and now long-departed Senate cloakroom fashion of amiable banter married to deep distrust and abiding deceit. Tommy Griscom, who worked as perhaps Baker’s closest confidant in the Senate and White House, recalled in a telephone conversation that his mentor never told him what to do beyond a few reliable words of guidance: Do the right thing.

Baker himself was on the right side of the political spectrum, but not too much and not so fervently that he did not accumulate abiding friendships among Democrats. And yet he was a partisan, and a partisan of a path-breaking sort. The son of a Republican congressman in Tennessee’s second district — the heart of East Tennessee, the part of the state that opposed secession in 1861 — Baker was the first Republican since Reconstruction to win popular election in a statewide race.

His election to the Senate ended statewide domination of a particularly and peculiarly powerful strain of Democratic politician: Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, but also 20th-century giants such as Cordell Hull (later secretary of state), Estes Kefauver (a celebrated Senate investigator known for his defeat of John F. Kennedy for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination) and Albert Gore Sr. (senator and father of a vice president).

No one who was in the Senate gallery when Baker announced his retirement from the chamber in 1984 will forget his personal reminiscence. He stood at his lectern in the front row of the chamber, his colleagues standing around him, and he recalled his years in Washington. The Senate majority leader recalled that he had come to the chamber young, idealistic and rich. Then he departed, as none of those things.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.