Howard Baker came from a family very active in Tennessee politics. Though Baker married the daughter of Senator Everett Dirkson (R-IL), whom he met while helping set up his father’s congressional office, the junior Baker had no political ambitions himself. This changed in 1964 when he decided to contend in Tennessee’s special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of Senator Estes Kefauver. In a year dominated by the Democrats, Baker lost by only 50,000 votes. In 1966, however, Baker became the first Republican Senator to win a popular election in state history.
When he ran for re-election in 1972, Baker emphasized his close ties to President Nixon, often referring to him as a close friend. When he was appointed vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, Baker made a conscious and public effort to set aside that friendship in favor of objectivity. It was Baker who, during the televised hearings, made famous the refrain, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” As the question pried lose answers from witnesses, Baker became increasingly convinced of his friend’s complicity.
In the upheaval of Watergate’s aftermath, Senator Baker’s role on the committee may have cost him the opportunity to serve as President Ford’s running mate in the 1976 election. Though tarnished in the eyes of some Republicans, Baker held the trust of his Senate colleagues who elected him minority leader in 1977 and majority leader in 1981. Twenty-five years later, commenting on the scandal that brought him public prominence, Baker drew this lesson, “The one thing in life [Watergate] proves beyond a shadow of a doubt: In American public life, cover-ups never work.”