The remarkable life of Howard H. Baker, Jr., who died at age 88, was celebrated last week at Tennessee's largest funeral in memory. With onetime Baker staffer and present Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) delivering what one mourner called a "spot-on eulogy," the audience included Al Gore, Fred Thompson, present Senate leaders Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), Vice President Joe Biden, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.), and former Missouri Sen. and Episcopal priest John Danforth, who married Baker and their onetime Senate colleague Nancy Kassebaum (R.-Kan.) in 1996.
"And all the leading Republican Tennesseans present and past were there," former Baker staffer Tim Locke told Newsmax, "along with staffer alumni from every job he held. There were lots of political lions from several generations aided by walkers and canes."
Throughout the service, Baker was recalled for his years as Republican senator, member of the nationally-televised Senate Watergate Committee, and Senate Majority Leader, White House chief of staff in Ronald Reagan's second administration, and Ambassador to Japan.
But even many of the mourners didn't know or remember a fact about Howard Baker's remarkable career: how, at age 42 and after less than two years in the Senate, he came tantalizingly close to being Richard Nixon's vice presidential running mate on the Republican ticket in 1968.
Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the young Baker was considered a politician with national political potential from the moment he won his first office—in his case, in 1966, when he became Tennessee's first Republican senator on a platform of what he called "positive conservatism."
He served on a U.S. Navy PT Boat in World War II, like John Kennedy. As a freshman senator, trial lawyer Baker was immediately considered one of his party's best speakers, much like Barack Obama in his early Senate career.
Baker was also as well-connected as any Republican. His father and step-mother were both Republican U.S. Representatives from Tennessee and his father-in-law was the beloved Senate GOP Leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.).
"I am not going to take, I can assure you, anybody that is going to divide this party," Nixon told Southern delegates upon arriving in Miami for the GOP national convention, with the nomination almost in his pocket.
The night before, wrote the Baltimore Sun's Jules Witcover in "The Resurrection of Richard Nixon," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), a key Nixon backer, had slipped into his candidate's hand a slip of paper. It included a column of prospective running mates he considered "unacceptable' (New York Mayor John Lindsay, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, all liberal) and another column of "acceptable" running mates, among them Baker and freshman Rep. George H.W. Bush of Texas.
Hours after his nomination became official, Nixon held a series of meetings in his penthouse suite at the Miami Hilton. Among those present who had been sounding out delegates about a vice presidential favorite were 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater, California Lieutenant Governor and Nixon friend Bob Finch, and Thurmond.
"On the right," reported authors Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page in "An American Melodrama,"
vice presidential prospects included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Texas Sen. John Tower, and Baker.
"On the left, names supposedly good for the ticket in the cities: among them Lindsay, [Michigan Gov. George] Romney, and the languid ex-governor of Pennsylvania, William Scranton."
But, as the authors note, "Thurmond's list was the subject of far more attention: At its head, inevitably, Reagan. Failing him, Baker."
As evening became morning in Miami, Nixon's advisors were clearly deadlocked and two lesser-known governors had moved into consideration: John Volpe, Italian American and two-term governor of Massachusetts, and Spiro Agnew, Greek American and in his second year as governor of Maryland.
"These two, with Baker of Tennessee, survived into the final rounds," wrote Chester, Hodgson, and Page. The following morning, Nixon announced that his choice was Agnew – "Spiro Who?" to most Americans but deemed "acceptable" by Thurmond and many conservatives for being a pro-civil rights Republican who, amid urban riots that year, had called on black leaders "to repudiate black racism, just as I have repudiated white racism."
"Howard Baker was considered for the vice presidential slot by Nixon and included in the list of finalists," said Prof. Justin Coffey of Quincy University (Missouri), who will have a long-awaited biography of Agnew completed in 2016. (Coffey told Newsmax he devotes a full chapter to the vice presidential selection in '68).
As close as he came to being a heartbeat away from the presidency at a young age, Howard Baker didn't make it. But his life was inarguably that of a man of consequence. and, as former staffer Locke put it, "a long and good life has come to an end."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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