Howard H. Baker Jr., who died Thursday at age 88, will be remembered in tributes this week for many things: The way he broke the century-long Democratic hold on Tennessee. His rise up the ladder in Washington politics. His uncommonly decent reign as Senate majority leader. His marriages — almost certainly the only man who could have claimed this — to daughters of two of the most prominent Republicans in American history. His thwarted presidential ambitions. His wise, calm stewardship of the last years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as White House chief of staff.
But Mr. Baker will be remembered for generations for one thing. He asked one of the most important questions in American history.
It was a question so basic, so innocent in its approach and assumptions, so intelligent in its formulation and yet so trenchant that it ferreted out the truth at the height of the Watergate tensions —and it was so piercing in its clarity that it became a cliche:
What did the president know and when did he know it?
What the president (Richard Nixon) knew (loads, it turned out) and when he knew it (earlier than he let on) were the issues at the center of the gravest constitutional crisis in modern American history. By asking that question — formulated, according to folklore, by Fred Thompson, later an actor, senator and presidential candidate — Baker almost surely answered it as well.
The question in effect ended the Nixon presidency, coming as it did from a loyal Republican — he was the top GOP figure on the Senate Watergate committee — who was so highly regarded by the White House that he once was offered a Supreme Court seat by Nixon himself. (The seat eventually went to William Rehnquist.)
Few lawmakers of his generation or any other will receive the tributes that yesterday began to pour in for him.