Joy and Howard Baker, Cissy Baker, Karen and Darek Baker and young Daniel Dirksen Baker
Senator Howard Baker, Jr. was one of my favorite politicians to cover while working news at WDOD Radio. Senator Baker served the state of Tennessee in Congress from 1967 to 1985. After being elected as Senate Majority Leader, President Ronald Reagan later chose the Huntsville, Tn. resident as his chief of staff in 1987 and 1988.
The McCallie School graduate never dodged reporters when he was in Chattanooga. He tapped veteran News Free Press political writer Tom Griscom as his press secretary. Mr. Griscom always called the media when the senator was going to be in town.
Many of us got acquainted with Tennessee’s junior senator in 1972 during the famous Watergate hearings broadcast around the world. In Baker’s own words: “I’ll let the chips fall where they may.” One officer at the American Forces Network where I was stationed said, “Watch out, Senator Baker is a natural born leader and student of government, he’ll be around a while.” I was very proud of Senator Baker from Tennessee.
I remember a Baker speaking event at a Dayton, Tn. restaurant, maybe to the Chamber of Commerce. A bunch of reporters were there to cover the meeting. Senator Baker walked in and said to Griscom, “Those boys look hungry, get them something to eat and then I’ll talk with them for as long as they want.” The senator handed his personal credit card to Griscom and said go pay the entire bill.
The senator was a generous man and often sent checks to the Chattanooga Police and Fire Department’s Forgotten Child Fund and he was a big supporter of our military.
Unannounced, the 1949 University of Tennessee law graduate showed up with his administrative assistant J. Oliver Scroggins at the Armed Forces Day Luncheon at the Read House where Senator Max Cleland was guest speaker. Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran, had lost both his legs in the military. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Charles Coolidge quickly found a place for the two men at his table. Baker was trained at the Navy facility, University of the South in Sewanee, Tn. and earned the rank of a naval lieutenant in World War II. He deeply appreciated the annual celebrations in Chattanooga. During his talk, Senator Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, thanked Senator Baker, a Tennessee Republican, for coming to hear him speak.
While serving in 1983 as president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Chattanooga Chapter, Mr. Griscom arranged a meeting with journalists in the Provident Dining Room with Senator Baker. He talked about Washington politics and enlightened us on his photography hobby, which he started in 1937. “I’m proud I can go to any part of my life and recover any period of it from my pictures, I’m often seen in undignified poses at solemn occasions,” the senator said.
Senator Baker arranged the visit of President Ronald Reagan at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga arena in 1987. The Chattanooga Boys Choir under the direction of Everett O’Neal sang before the President spoke to a full audience at the Roundhouse. Hamilton County Republican Charlie Peavyhouse said the highlight of the trip was the President asking the Senator for Krystal hamburgers when they were boarding Air Force One fixing to return to Washington, D.C.
The late Bill Casteel, who covered politics for the Chattanooga Times, told this writer privately, Senator Baker was his favorite Washington figure to cover. Casteel said the lawmaker would always level with reporters and not skirt around issues. Casteel pointed out Baker was also a favorite on the network’s Sunday talk shows.
In a radio interview, Griscom said some of his best years were working for Senator Howard Baker both as Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff. Griscom said Baker was a very good listener and that was one reason he was so popular.
The late Senator Fred Thompson worked closely with Senator Baker during the Watergate era. Senator Thompson said, “Senator Baker always put the good of the nation above politics.”
Senator Baker passed away in 2014 but left us a lot of positive lessons from his life in public office.
In 1982, I received a special Christmas card with a picture of the senator’s entire family and I still have it in my scrapbook, It shows Joy and Howard Baker, Cissy Baker, Karen and Darek Baker and young Daniel Dirksen Baker.
Senator Baker and this writer shared the same birthday, Nov. 15, and we exchanged birthday cards several times, something I’ll never forget. He even called me once on the air and said: “Earl, I want to wish you a happy birthday and Tom does too.”
Senator Howard Baker