He was serious-minded, to be sure, but he was also companionable, and not in the old-fashioned and now long-departed Senate cloakroom fashion of amiable banter married to deep distrust and abiding deceit. Tommy Griscom, who worked as perhaps Baker’s closest confidant in the Senate and White House, recalled in a recent telephone conversation that his mentor never told him what to do beyond a few reliable words of guidance: Do the right thing.
Baker himself was on the right side of the political spectrum, but not too much and not so fervently that he did not accumulate abiding friendships among Democrats. And yet he was a partisan, and a partisan of a path-breaking sort. The son of a Republican congressman in Tennessee’s 2nd District — the heart of East Tennessee, the part of the state that opposed secession in 1861 — Baker was the first Republican since Reconstruction to win popular election in a statewide race.
His election to the Senate ended statewide domination of a particularly and peculiarly powerful strain of Democratic politician: Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, but also 20th-century giants such as Cordell Hull (later secretary of state), Estes Kefauver (a celebrated Senate investigator known for his defeat of John F. Kennedy for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination) and Albert Gore Sr. (senator and father of a vice president). The latter two, along with Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, were the only Democrats from Confederate states who did not sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration.
Baker’s triumph spawned a new breed of Tennessee Republicans — among their number is Lamar Alexander, a former governor, education secretary, university president and sitting senator — and transformed Tennessee into a two-party state.
Baker was preparing for a second presidential campaign in 1988 — his first one, in 1980, was snuffed out by George H.W. Bush in Iowa and Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire — but his plans were derailed when Reagan asked him to succeed the embattled Donald Regan as White House chief of staff. He served for 16 difficult months while the Reagan administration struggled with the Iran-Contra scandal.