Sen. Baker, who queried Nixon on Watergate, dies

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Sen. Baker, who queried Nixon on Watergate, dies
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: (L-R Background) Senator Howard Baker, President Ronald Reagan, Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, (L-R Foreground) Congressman Jim Wright, and Edwin Meese talk during a Budget Summit in Washington, DC on April 28, 1982. (Photo by James K. W. Atherton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: (L - R) Congressman Jim Wright (back of head), President Ronald Reagan, Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, Edwin Meese, Senator Howard Baker, and Congressman Richard Bolling talk during a Budget Summit in Washington, DC on April 28, 1982. (Photo by James K. W. Atherton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - MARCH 25: President Ronald Reagan (3R) with Dominican Republic President Joaquin Balaguer Ricardo (C-L) & others including Howard Baker & George Shultz, at WH departure ceremony. (Photo by Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. posing for a picture during President Ronald W. Reagan's departure. (Photo by Diana Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
US. Pres. Ronald W. Reagan (R) addressing law enforcement group on child pornography with Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. at his side. (Photo by Terry Ashe//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
43933 02: Chief of Staff Howard Baker and President Ronald Reagan talk October, 1987 in the White House, Washington, DC. (Photo by Diana Walker/Liaison)
375034 03: Chief of Staff Howard Baker sits March 5, 1987 in USA. Baker was recently appointed Chief of Staff by President Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Diana Walker/Liaison)
023586 03: (NO NEWSWEEK - NO USNEWS) President Ronald Reagan meets with Howard Baker in the Cabinet Room of the White House September 30, 1981 in Washington, DC. Reagan, 40th president of the United States, implemented policies that reversed trends toward greater government involvement in economic and social regulation. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Liaison)
White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. listening to President Ronald W. Reagan speak. (Photo by Diana Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
In this photo provided by the White House, President Ronald Reagan meets with outgoing Chief of Staff Howard Baker, left, and incoming Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, right, in the Oval Office of the White House, June 14, 1988. (AP Photo/White House/Susan Biddle)
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., left shares a smile with Senate Majority leader Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., after Senate passage of a $98.3-billion tax bill Thursday, August 19, 1982 in Capitol Hill, Washington. With the 52-47 vote, the Senate sent the three-year plan to President Ronald Reagan for his signature. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
FILE - This Nov. 10, 1987 file photo shows Treasury Secretary James Baker, left, and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker huddle on Capitol Hill in Washington as they prepare to meet with Congressional negotiators to agree on ways to cut the federal deficit. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)
FILE - This Feb. 11, 1982 file photo shows Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tenn., center, flanked by Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., left, and House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Ill. outside the White House in Washington following a meeting with President Ronald Reagan. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo/Jeff Taylor, File)
FILE - This May 17, 1973 file photo shows Sen. Fred D. Thompson, Chief Minority Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, left, talking with Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. during the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington. . Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - This Dec. 4, 1980 file photo shows Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd of W.Va., right, talking to the man who will replace him, Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo/Chick Harrity, File)
FILE - This Nov. 9, 1979 file photo shows three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from left, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill discussing the vote in favor of the SALT II treaty, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo/Charles W. Harrity, File)
FILE - This Dec. 13, 1980 file photo shows President-elect Ronald Reagan, center, talking with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, right, and Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. during a luncheon at Blair House in Washington. . Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)
Senator Sam Ervin, D-N.C., chairman of the Watergate Investigating Committee, listens to other members of the committee Thursday May 18, 1973 during the first day of public hearings in Washington. They are, from left; Fred Thompson, chief minority couns. Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., Ervin; and Samuel Dash, Chief majority. (AP Photo).
UNITED STATES - JUNE 17: Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., speaks during the unveiling of a bipartisan plan for comprehensive health reform at the Columbus Club in Union Station on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 17: Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., speaks during the unveiling of a bipartisan plan for comprehensive health reform at the Columbus Club in Union Station on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 09: Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, D-Tenn., walks through the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 25: Former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., leaves following the portrait unveiling ceremony for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., in the historic Old Senate Chamber on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker poses in front of his photographs at the opening ceremony of his photo exhibition 'Ambassador Baker's Japan' on November 16, 2004 in Tokyo, Japan. The exhibition is opened to the public until January 7 next year. (Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Howard Baker's question sliced to the core of Watergate: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Repeated over and again in the senator's mild Tennessee drawl, those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

Baker's famous question has been dusted off for potential White House scandals big and small ever since.

Respected Former Senator Howard Baker Dies At 88

Baker, who later became Senate majority leader, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP's elder statesmen, died Thursday at his Tennessee home of complications from a stroke suffered days earlier, according to an email distributed at the law firm where Baker was senior counsel. He was 88.

Baker emerged as an unlikely star of the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973.

When chosen as vice chairman - and therefore leading Republican - of the Senate special committee, he was a Nixon ally who thought the allegations couldn't possibly be true. Democrats feared he would serve as the White House's "mole" in the investigation of the break-in at Democratic headquarters and other crimes perpetrated in service to Nixon's re-election.

"I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing," Baker told The Associated Press in 1992. "But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked."

He said Watergate became "the greatest disillusionment" of his political career.

Baker's intense but restrained style of interrogating former White House aides played well on camera. A youthful-looking, side-burned 47-year-old, his brainy charm inspired a raft of love notes sent to his Senate office; a women's magazine proclaimed him "studly." He was mentioned frequently as presidential material.

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts that stuck throughout a long political career.

Howard Henry Baker Jr. had a fine political pedigree - his father was a congressman from Huntsville, Tenn., and his father-in-law a prominent senator from Illinois. Over the years, his name would be knocked about for big Washington jobs including vice presidential candidate, Supreme Court justice and CIA director. But his focus remained on the Senate and, at times, the White House.

In 18 years as a moderate Republican senator, he was known for plain speaking and plain dealing. He had a talent for brokering compromise, leading some to dub him "the Great Conciliator."

"Senator Baker truly earned his nickname: the Great Conciliator. I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on the Senate floor Thursday, announcing Baker's death to the chamber.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who once worked as an assistant to Baker, called him "Tennessee's favorite son" and "an indispensable friend."

"He built our state's two-party political system and inspired three generations to try to build a better state and country," Alexander said in a news release Thursday.

Baker was minority leader when the Reagan landslide swept Republicans into control of the chamber in 1980 Reagan, and he became the first Republican majority leader in decades.

Putting aside his own reservations about Reagan's economic proposals, Baker played a key role in passage of legislation synonymous with the "Reagan Revolution" - major tax and spending cuts combined with a military buildup.

Baker considered his years as Senate majority leader, 1981 to 1985, the high point of his career. He called it "the second-best job in town, only second to the presidency."

He made a fleeting bid for that best job in 1980, and left the Senate with an eye to another presidential run in 1988. Instead, he ended up in the White House as Reagan's chief of staff.

Reagan needed him to put things in order after ousting chief of staff Donald Regan amid scandal over the administration's secret moves to trade arms for hostages in Iran and divert the profits to Nicaraguan rebels - another of history's what-did-the-president-know moments.

Baker recalled marshaling all his reasons for refusing the offer, but he couldn't turn down Reagan. "I guess I am a pushover for presidents," he said.

The Reagan White House weathered Iran-Contra. But Baker lost his last chance at the presidency.

"I have seen it up close and personal and I am convinced that I could do that job," he said. "But that boat never came to dock."

During much of the 1980s and `90s, Baker grappled with the illness of his wife, Joy, daughter of Everett Dirksen, a former GOP Senate leader. She died in 1993 after an 11-year battle with cancer. The couple had two children.

In 1996, Baker married Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum. It was the first time two people who had served in the Senate married.

President George H.W. Bush sent Baker to Moscow in 1991 to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before a summit; George W. Bush named him ambassador to Japan in 2001.

An accomplished amateur photographer, Baker carried a camera wherever he went. But he didn't take any photos during the Watergate hearings.

"I felt that it was beneath the dignity of the event," he said years later. "It turned out the event had no dignity and I should have taken pictures."

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