Former Tennessee senator and Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker passed away today at the age of 88. Baker, who served as majority leader of the Senate from 1981 to 1985, was on the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate break-in. His oft-repeated question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” became famous when it turned out that the answers were “a lot” and “early enough to be deeply involved in the cover-up.” (Watch Baker ask the question here.) But, as the Washington Post writes today:
When he was named vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities — the Senate Watergate Committee formed to investigate the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building — Republicans were confident that the second-term southerner and trial lawyer with the boyish look and aw-shucks manner would defend the White House. His 1972 campaign literature described him as a “close friend and trusted advisor of our President, Richard M. Nixon.”
Indeed, when he asked the question for which he became famous, Mr. Baker intended to distance Nixon from the scandal.
The investigaiton conducted by Baker and the rest of the committee, though, was widely seen as impartial, which means that we have Howard Baker (among others) to thank for not turning Watergate into a massive constitutional crisis. Read the rest of the Post’s thorough obituary here.