Howard Baker, the Republican senator from Tennessee who framed the question that cut to the heart of the official inquiry into the Watergate scandal, died Thursday, four days after a stroke. He was 88.
His death at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., was announced by a spokeswoman at his Memphis law firm, Baker Donelson, where he had been senior counsel.
A moderate Republican with bipartisan skill, Baker played many leading roles in his long government career, including White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan and later U.S. ambassador to Japan. But he was most famous for the one question he asked of witnesses during the 1973 Watergate hearings: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
The answers doomed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and sealed Baker's reputation as that rare find: a thoughtful politician who, as one reporter suggested, "had nothing at heart but the interests of our country."
Baker initially believed in Nixon's innocence, but changed his mind as evidence accumulated of White House involvement in the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
The Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices — popularly known as the Ervin committee, after its chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C. — was hardly a coveted assignment for politicians seeking to get ahead. Baker had admired Nixon but was placed on the panel by Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., as punishment for having challenged Scott for the leadership post.
The Watergate hearings, televised live, wound up catapulting Baker to national attention, laying the groundwork for his presidential bid in 1980. But his role also drew the distrust of right-wing Republicans, who would never forgive him for contributing to the pressure that forced Nixon's resignation and later lobbied against his efforts to win the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket in 1976 and 1980.
The scion of a politically powerful family in Huntsville, Tenn., Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born Nov. 15, 1925. His grandfather was a judge, his grandmother the first female sheriff in Tennessee. His father was a U.S. representative who served Tennessee's 2nd District from 1951 until his death in 1964.
Baker was described as a liberal on environmental issues (he helped draft anti-strip-mining legislation), a moderate on civil rights (he backed landmark voting rights legislation but opposed busing to achieve racial balance in schools, calling it "a grievous piece of mischief") and a hawk on foreign policy (he voted against SALT II, an arms reduction treaty with the Soviets, but he supported the Panama Canal treaty that ceded control of the waterway to Panama).
For the most part, he was a compromiser and pragmatist who voted for the Equal Rights Amendment, which gave states the option to ratify a constitutional amendment conferring equal rights on women, but against extension of the ratification deadline. James A. Baker III, Reagan's first chief of staff and later treasury secretary who was himself a deft manipulator of political strings, once called him "the quintessential mediator, negotiator and moderator."