Commentary: We must not be enemies
Howard Baker wrote his own epitaph. The Tennessee Republican served in the Senate for 18 years — eight of them as his party’s leader — before retiring in 1984. When he died recently at 88, we looked up a speech Baker gave in 1998, in which he described his leadership style.
“Very often,” he said, he found himself “engaged in fire-breathing, passionate debate” with fellow senators. But afterwards, “I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his support for the next issue for the following day.”
“People may think we’re crazy when we do that,” Baker continued. “Or perhaps they think our debates are fraudulent to begin with. ... But we aren’t crazy and we aren’t frauds.
“This ritual is as natural as breathing here in the Senate, and it is as important as anything that happens in Washington or in the country we serve, for that matter. It signifies that, as Lincoln said, ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.’”
As we get older it’s tempting — and dangerous — to wallow in nostalgia for The Good Old Days, to believe that everything was better when we were more hopeful and less stained by disappointment.
But we both covered Congress during Baker’s tenure, and he’s right. The rituals of comity and compromise are critical to a functioning democracy. The United States Senate under his leadership was a far more productive and less rancorous place than it is today.
These days, lawmakers ignore Baker’s model and treat each other as enemies, even apostates, not as friends. Instead of shaking hands with their rivals, they stab them in the back.
As many obituary writers noted, Baker earned the sobriquet “The Great Conciliator.” James A. Baker (no relation), who held several high posts in Republican administrations, eulogized the senator as “the quintessential mediator, negotiator and moderator.” His own stepmother, who served in Congress herself, once said of Baker, “He’s like the Tennessee River. He flows right down the middle.”
It’s hard to believe today, but those descriptions were all meant as high compliments. Baker’s overall voting record was pretty conservative. He served briefly as White House chief of staff during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and Nancy Reagan called him one of her husband’s “most valued advisors.”
Yet he defied ideological orthodoxy by working with Democrats to support stronger voting rights and tougher environmental rules, the Equal Rights Amendment and the Panama Canal Treaty. As a member of the Watergate commission, he helped bring down Richard Nixon, a fellow Republican, after he realized the president had broken the law.
Today, Howard Baker wouldn’t be praised for those practices; he’d be challenged in a Republican primary as a heretic — just as his old friend Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi was recently assailed by the tea party for lacking sufficient purity.
Cochran barely survived and his opponent, Chris McDaniel, complained bitterly afterwards that GOP voters had abandoned “principle ... by once again compromising, by once again reaching against the aisle.”
He had it exactly wrong. It’s the McDaniels of the world, in both parties, who are violating the principles of democracy by denigrating compromise.
What forces shaped Howard Baker? And why have they lost their impact in today’s capital?
There are many complex answers to that question. He was a Navy veteran of World War II — a common experience that taught a whole generation of legislators about ideals and loyalties that transcend transient factionalism. He came from a family that revered politics as a noble occupation: His father, stepmother, father-in-law and second wife all served in Congress. He came from a border state with two strong parties and was succeeded in the Senate by a Democrat, Al Gore.
The word we keep coming back to, however, is “respect.” Baker respected his political foes, and he respected the institution they all served together. He knew that he was not always right, and he knew that at times the national interest had to come before partisan advantage.
As law professor Philip K. Howard wrote: “He had that rare quality — almost impossible to find in Washington nowadays — of moral authority. People trusted him.”
Yes, they did. According to one popular anecdote, a majority of Democratic senators would have supported him for president. And that story reveals the truth embedded in the epitaph Howard Baker wrote for himself.
When political rivals respect and even like each other, they aren’t crazy and they aren’t frauds.
They are Americans.