Where’s This President’s Howard Baker?

Al Gore’s Contrivance brings word that Howard Baker has died. He is probably best remembered for posing the most famous question in American politics. That was, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” It clarified the Watergate scandal for the public, but it also drew a line in the sand amongst Republicans.

Repeated over and again in the senator’s mild Tennessee drawl, those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

Baker’s famous question has been dusted off for potential White House scandals big and small ever since.

Baker, who later became Senate majority leader, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP’s elder statesmen, died Thursday at his Tennessee home of complications from a stroke suffered days earlier, according to an email distributed at the law firm where Baker was senior counsel. He was 88.

Baker emerged as an unlikely star of the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973.

When chosen as vice chairman — and therefore leading Republican — of the Senate special committee, he was a Nixon ally who thought the allegations couldn’t possibly be true. Democrats feared he would serve as the White House’s “mole” in the investigation of the break-in at Democratic headquarters and other crimes perpetrated in service to Nixon’s re-election.

“I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” Baker told The Associated Press in 1992. “But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

He said Watergate became “the greatest disillusionment” of his political career.

Baker’s intense but restrained style of interrogating former White House aides played well on camera. A youthful-looking, side-burned 47-year-old, his brainy charm inspired a raft of love notes sent to his Senate office; a women’s magazine proclaimed him “studly.” He was mentioned frequently as presidential material.

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts that stuck throughout a long political career.

In the 1970’s, Republicans were faced with a choice. Defend the indefensible or turn on their own man. They chose the latter. In the 1980’s, they faced a similar challenge, even though Reagan was never implicated in Iran-Contra, which was largely a non-scandal. Still, there were Republicans and Conservatives that went after guys like Oliver North.

The political cult we call the Democratic Party will never turn on their guy. They defended Clinton and they are defending Obama, despite abuses of power that make Nixon and Clinton look like pikers. They will defend the cult to the last man, no matter what evidence comes to light.

RIP Howard Baker.