I recently had a flashback to a conversation I had with U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. more than a decade ago.
It was during a 2007 visit to Scott County by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander — who, like so many other politicians, had been heavily influenced by Baker.
As Alexander spoke to constituents inside the conference room at the Scott County Office Building in Huntsville, I stepped into the hallway for a breath of fresh air. Baker had dropped by to support his GOP colleague, and was also standing in the hallway. I asked about his support for Fred Thompson — his friend and protege, whom he had encouraged to seek the Republican nomination for president in the looming 2008 primary. He worried that Thompson had waited too late to get into the race, a fear that proved well-founded. Thompson polled poorly in the early primaries and caucuses, and quickly withdrew from the race as John McCain went on to win the Republican nomination.
It was one of several political conversations I had with Baker, and just one of the countless conversations he had about politics with his fellow Scott Countians over the years.
What I most vividly recall about Baker — who died five years ago this week after several years of declining health due to a stroke — was not what he said, but what he didn’t say.
Even in the 2000s, as Baker finally enjoyed retirement after a stint as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, politics were becoming nasty. It started, perhaps, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney being accused of war crimes. It quickly escalated during the 2004 presidential campaign, which saw Bush defeat Democrat John Kerry.
By the fall of 2007, when Thompson — Baker’s one-time campaign manager, and the man who is sometimes said to have provided his boss with the famous Watergate question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — was first considering and finally entered the presidential race, things had started to get really ugly. Barack Obama would go on to become perhaps the most hated president in American history, only to hand off that dubious title to Donald Trump. And while we could debate for weeks about whether either man — Obama or Trump — did anything to earn the polarization that their polar-opposite administrations brought to American society, one thing that is for sure is that American politics have gone straight into the gutter, with the ugliness often coming from the politicians themselves.
Whether you loved or hated his moderately-conservative politics, one thing you had to admit about Baker was that he did not and would not engage in gutter politics. He was a gentleman — perhaps, by that time, the last of a dying breed of politicians who were statesmen first and political barkers second.
Baker was respected by politicians on the left as well as those on the right. Perhaps some of that was his moderate ideology, which favored a conciliatory approach to policy rather than a hard-line approach that is divisive by its very nature. But, more than that, it’s because Baker and the other politicians of his era were respectful of one another. It was an important tone to strike, because it left open lines of communication between the left and the right, opportunities for one side to bargain with the other for the common good of the American people. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan was also able to collaborate with Democrats, and he’s hailed as the founder of modern conservatism. Reagan was probably slightly less polite than Baker; he had a little more political bulldog in him. Of course, as Reagan’s White House Chief of Staff, it goes without saying that Baker had a little bulldog in himself, too — it’s just that he kept it carefully collared.
It wasn’t just the Republicans who behaved gentlemanly; the Democrats did, too. In fact, there has perhaps been few milder-milder-mannered players in the history of presidential politics than Jimmy Carter. The Georgia peanut farmer may not be remembered as an especially effective president, but he is remembered as an especially nice guy. Oh, sure, there are plenty of stories about Carter’s pomposity — but we’re judging him by the standards set by politicians, not those set by Mother Teresa.
A decade and a half after Regan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, another president of a different era — Bill Clinton — found reason to strike a conciliatory approach after Republicans seized control of Congress in the 1994 and 1996 elections. If American politics truly had a gentler era, it was ending by the ‘90s, but Clinton — very much a Democrat — and Republicans managed to work together…and America was better for it.
Fast-forward to recent times. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently found himself being raked across the coals by hard-line liberals, with mainstream media pundits fueling the flames. Why? Because a four-year-old video resurfaced in which Biden, then the vice president, had the audacity to refer to Dick Cheney as “a decent man.” On Twitter, countless progressives screeched that they would never consider voting for Biden because he actually referred to Cheney as “decent.”
It’s a different era now, and that’s sad. No longer can your political adversaries fiercely oppose your ideas and still maintain your respect. In this new era, your political opposites must be vilified and hated, with every effort made to tear down not only them, but also their families and everything they stand for.
U.S. politics need more gentlemen — and women — like Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton and the others who came before the current cast of muckrakers and wedge-drivers who have so clearly divided America into two separate camps with seemingly nothing in common.