The views behind Baker's key role in the Watergate hearings

Howard Baker explains the views behind his key role in the Watergate hearings

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"What did the president know and when did he know it?" Sen. Howard Baker asked during the Watergate Hearings. "What did the president know and when did he know it?" Sen. Howard Baker asked during the Watergate Hearings.
"I was an admirer of Nixon. I still am in a way," Sen. Baker said. "I don't think he knew anything about it. His political sin was when he found out about it, he didn't act appropriately." "I was an admirer of Nixon. I still am in a way," Sen. Baker said. "I don't think he knew anything about it. His political sin was when he found out about it, he didn't act appropriately."

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Forty years ago in 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected to the White House. It was also the year an event took place that would destroy his presidency.

Sen. Howard Baker, Jr. a Republican from Tennessee, found himself caught between his admiration for Nixon and his love for the Constitution and his country.

If there was a Hall of Fame for politicians, Baker would surely be among the first inducted. At 86, he has spent his lifetime in public service.

He was a three-term U.S. Senator, a presidential candidate, served as chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan and was an ambassador to Japan.

But even with that impressive body of work, it was an event 40 years ago this summer that led to, arguably, Baker's most prominent moment. The event was the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and Business Complex.

A year later, the break-in led to the formation of the Senate Watergate Committee.

Baker who was vice chair of that committee asked the quintessential question. "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

The Watergate Hearings dominated the headlines and captivated the nation.

Baker says he was shocked by the attention. "After the first day of multi-network coverage, Ron McMahan (his press secretary at the time) came to me and said that it was estimated there were 80 million viewers. I was astonished."

Baker sat down with 6 News recently at the University of Tennessee's Baker Center for Public Policy to talk about Watergate.

I asked how his now famous question came to be asked. He says it came to him during lunch with Ron McMahan.

"I said, Ron, these hearings are wandering all over the place. They don't focus on the central element. I'm going to ask the question that deals with the central element when I get an opportunity," Baker said.

"Then he (McMahan) said what's that? And I said I'm going to try to find out what did President Nixon know about this and when did he know it? We've got to figure out what his responsibilities were. I'll ask a witness to tell me what his opinion was," Baker added.

"I remember McMahan said, 'Well that's not a very good question.' And I said, I'm going to ask it anyway, and I did," Baker said, chuckling at the memory.

Baker describes the Watergate era as a terrible time in American history and a personally difficult period for him.

"I was an admirer of Nixon. I still am in a way," he said. "I don't think he knew anything about it. His political sin was when he found out about it, he didn't act appropriately."

During and after Watergate, the White House was dysfunctional. Nixon's resignation began the road to recovery.

Now some say Washington is again dysfunctional because of its super charged partisan environment.

But Sen. Baker disagrees, saying Washington is fundamentally unchanged and legislating is still "a human encounter."

"The essential element of public governance is to understand and hear what people have to say and to act on it according to your best judgement. Sometimes that necessitates compromise to get something done, but often it means to - as you say - draw the line. But both those things are involved, were then, is now," Baker said emphatically.

He was reluctant to give advice to today's politicians, but when pressed he offered this. "My advice would be to take it easy. You've got challenges abroad, at home, political, economic and social challenges. But remember, you are not unique."

"But our great advantage in America is, we have a system and it translates into useful public policy," he added. "It's good. It's unique. It's the essence of democracy and I'm grateful for that."

Sen. Baker says he's gone back to work at the law firm founded by his grandfather, adding that it "occupies him."

And he still takes pictures. Photography has been and remains a great passion for Baker.

He lives in Huntsville with his wife, Nancy, who is also a former U.S. senator.

Our thanks to Sen. Baker for taking time to talk with us and to Nancy and the senator's senior advisor, Fred Marcum.

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