Baker was the man who set me on the path to progressivism.
Former Tennessee Senator and Reagan White House Chief of Staff is dead at 88. Baker was, in many ways, one of the last of his kind: to wit, a coherent Republican. I have noted before that in my youth I was a conservative – by the standards of that era, anyway. I voted for Reagan twice – I’m not proud of it, but I won’t hide from the facts – even though I can’t say I was ever a true blue Reaganite. No, my ideals ran more toward the old school conservatism of men like Baker. Smart, reasonable, diplomatic. He was, I have argued, the last Republican statesman.
I won’t argue with you about my past, or explain or defend. I will simply note that like a lot of people, I was wrong about a lot of things when I was young. In time, intelligence, experience and a set of unrelenting humanitarian values revealed to me the errors of my beliefs and shined a light on a more progressive path.
Baker inadvertently played an important part in my decision to leave the GOP. In 1988, while a student at Iowa State University, I participated in the Iowa caucuses in Ames. I remember that night more vividly than I’d like. I went with my friend Kristen Kerns and entered the hall to encounter a room divided into two main categories: the more or less better dressed crowd supported Jack Kemp and the, ummm, less well-appointed were rather overtly in the Pat Robertson camp. I have through the years described this lot in all kinds of uncharitable terms, but the upshot is that Kristen and I, bright, thoughtful students, stood out in this room. Like sore thumbs.
We didn’t blend in any more seamlessly when I rose to nominate Howard Baker. Understand, Baker wasn’t running. He had set aside his ambitions for political office in favor of heading Reagan’s staff a few years prior, and since I really didn’t like any of the potential candidates jockeying to succeed Reagan, I was hoping against hope that Baker might change his mind. He didn’t, and he didn’t win the precinct that night, either. I think Kemp and Robertson went 1-2. I’m not sure eventual nominee and president George Bush got a single vote.
The most remarkable result of the evening, though, was my election to represent the precinct at the Story County GOP Convention. (I was initially the first alternate, and then one of the top vote getters had to bail.) I’ve always been proud of the fact that I managed this in a room of Kemp and Robertson supporters, and did so representing a rational man who wasn’t even running. I was a good speaker back then, I suppose.
At the county convention, though, reality began sinking in. I was one of four or five moderates in a very large hall of … well, not moderates. Conservative, religious, one-issue voting anti-abortion freaks in the main, and not a one of them had any tolerance for progressive positions on issues either social or economic. Plank after plank, vote after vote, we moderates presented reasoned argument after reasoned argument. The tally? Everyone to five.
In the wake of that experience, it became clear to me that I was no longer Republican, whether I wanted to be or not. While my stances really hadn’t changed, the party had. It had begun, a few years before, its wicked lurch to the right, and in due course this seismic upheaval transformed Richard Nixon into, relatively speaking, a progressive. Even Noam Chomsky admits it, saying that “Richard Nixon was America’s last liberal president.”
It was eye-opening, and disconcerting. That convention was similar, in so many ways, to the events a few years earlier that made clear I was no longer a Baptist.
I do not today look back on Howard Baker and see him the way I once did. But I won’t hesitate to assert that he was far superior, in every way, to those who comprise today’s Republican Party. And while this is the place where I might normally say something like “he’ll be missed,” the truth is he’s been missed for 30 years.