The Staff Directors of the Committees of the U.S. Senate Dinner: The Honorable Howard Baker’s Speech
John, that’s a talent I didn’t know you had, and it’s probably not a felony, but it’s at least a dangerous undertaking. My friends, we do have a dog named Tashi. My wife and I are very fond of her. She was with us the entire time we were in Japan. We brought her back with us to Tennessee. She minds most of the time, but when she doesn’t I remind my wife that after all she only speaks Japanese. But she’s a great animal.
It’s a pleasure to be here my friends. It’s a pleasure to see old friends and in many cases have the opportunity to get acquainted with those who follow and who do the work of the Congress. The staff directors are the very essence of order in the Congress of the United States. Without the staff and the staff directors it would be, in my view, virtually impossible for the legislative process, the formulation of public policy in this branch of the government, to go forward in an orderly way. So my friends, those of you who are or have been staff directors and in some cases who aspire to be staff directors let me tell you it’s an extraordinarily important job. And I congratulate those who have done it and I look forward to those who will follow.
The introduction was generous and thorough, John. But it left off a few things. The one thing, and Billy Pitts may remember this, my father was in Congress a long time ago in the House of Representatives. And for that matter so was my stepmother when he died. She served as well. Some remark “Baker, you are merely a congressional brat.” But that is perhaps true. My first wife’s father was Everett Dirksen from Illinois. And that usually completes the introduction or chronology of my antecedents, except it omits the fact that my grandmother was sheriff of Rode County, Tennessee. And I think in deference to her memory and to the order of things I should tell you that. She was a great lady by the way. She lived to be 102 and died of boredom. But she was indeed sheriff of Rode County, Tennessee and I believe was the first female sheriff in the history of Tennessee. Anyway, we’re very proud of her.
When I decided to make my ill fated run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1980, called on my grandmother, Marleta, and I said “Marleta, I just want you to know I decided to run for the Republican Presidential nomination.” She said “Well, that’s fine. But if you want to get close to power, run for sheriff, that’s where the power really is.” I tried to tell that story to Ronald Regan and George Bush and it didn’t take. So here I stand and there they went. And so be it. My friends, the Congress of the United States is indeed the people’s branch of government. I have a reverent respect for it, not only having been taught to have a reverent respect by my father, my father-in-law and my mother but also by service here. I’ve come to appreciate the fact that the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, the designers of our system were remarkable indeed in their perceptions for what was required in order to make democracy work.
There are two or three thoughts I’d like to share with you about that. You’re all familiar with the exquisite balance between the departments of the government. Unique responsibilities and obligations and privileges of the President, or as Dirksen used to say the “Chief Magistrate of the Country.” By the way, I used to say to Dirksen “Everett, you choose your words not for what they mean but for how they taste.” And some of you may remember him, but he had this deep resonant and sonorous voice. I think he chose them sometimes for how they tasted.
But the insights that our Founding Fathers had establishing the people’s branch: the Congress, the House and Senate of equal rank and equal value is the mechanism by which the people of this country express their views to the structure of government. The next point in that connection that I’ll make for you is that it is remarkable to me, perhaps it will be to you, that in this exquisite document that was designed for us and given us by our Founding Fathers, there’s not one word about how they people of this country speak to their government. And it’s always the result of the American political genius that the political system, the two party system in our case, was evolved and developed. And it became the way that the citizens of our country could consolidate and express their views to the elected officials of our government and thus become the voice of our country.
Politics, my friends, is an important undertaking. And I’m not talking about politics in the academics or theoretical sense, I’m talking about partisan politics. I’m talking about Republican and Democrat politics. I’m talking the continuing messiness of the political endeavor and sometimes the unpleasantness that goes with it. But that is as much an important part of the government system of our country as the Congress of the United States or the White House or the Supreme Court. Politics is important. All of you having participated as staff directors understand that. You understand the requirements that your translate to your members’ concerns, but also translate for your members. The concerns expressed about the election. Without staff directors, without the committee system in Congress it would be far more difficult and awkward for that to occur. But it does occur. And we’re pleased that it does because it has occurred in a way that is very satisfactory for the future of this country.
Let me say something else about politics. I’ve already confessed or acknowledged the claim that I’m a devotee of politics in the most partisan sense. I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a beneficiary, I’ve been threatened by from time to time. But they all go together and my appreciation for politics. Well my friends, the worst thing a former member of Congress can do perhaps is think “Well, that’s not the way it was when I was there. That’s not the way it oughta be. We oughta show them how to do this.” So what I’m about to say, I apologize for in advance. My friends, I am convinced that the politics that I revere so much and place such a high value on has gotten so mean, so tough, so raucous, so personal that it threatens the road the political system itself. I think that the one requirement I would advocate for my successors in office, is that all of you should have a reverent respect for politics, but also have a decent respect for differing points of view.
My friends, I saw that up close. I saw it with my father and Sam Rayburn. Rayburn, by the way was a great Speaker of the House of Representatives was from Rode County, Tennessee. And all of his family are Republicans. And my father asked Sam Rayburn the Speaker to come down and visit the District once. And he agreed and he did. So my father took great pleasure in introducing him to all of his Republican kinsmen. But my Dad and Sam Rayburn were friends and they communicated freely and frankly with no lack of enthusiasm for their point of view. But there’s a decent respect for the other fellow’s point of view that I find extremely essential.
And then I saw my late father-in-law Everett Dirksen, I had great respect for him as well. But I saw Dirksen and Lyndon Johnson as great friends. And I’m speaking now principally of the time when Johnson was majority leader of the Senate and Dirksen was minority leader of the Senate. And I really did I saw that up close. And I saw the genuine friendship that existed between them. I saw them exchange views with enthusiasm, sometimes in a loud, boisterous way but I also saw them retire to their respective offices at the end of the day and share a drink. I told that story to a former President of the United States who will who I will not identify, who said “Yeah, but I don’t drink!” And I said “Well, it’s too bad, I’m sorry to hear that.” But I saw Dirksen and Johnson exchange views on a variety of subjects and I saw that friendship continue when Johnson became President and Dirksen was Majority Leader of the Senate.
I recall one time in particular, speaking of the value of politics and the realism involved with it, when the President called Dirksen down to the White House and I was not there but I was told this and I believe it to be true. “Everett, wouldn’t you like to be remembered when you’re buried under that big oak tree in Pecan, Illinois, wouldn’t you be remembered as the man of 1964? Wouldn’t you be remembered as the man who ended the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Wouldn’t you be, like to be, remembered that way?” And Dirksen, who did cast a vote that day against the filibuster, said “Why yes, Mr. President I would. But actually, Jim Jones appointed the 6th circuit too.” And my friends, that happened, probably before Dirksen left the White House.
But in any event, I tell you that story for two reasons. One, to tell you that the friendship between them continued into the highest office in the land, the presidency. But I also want to tell you that they never abandoned their commitment to the political importance of their particular individual representations. It’s not an easy thing to do. The idealistic on the one hand to carry out your responsibility and mandate as a spokesman for the people on the other hand. They are not anywhere consistent but they are sometimes awkward. But it can be done.
So my friends, in this connection I urge you to consider that we have magnificence in this government. But to tell you also that it is indeed a product of the people and that it prospers as the people understand their responsibility, the challenges and the need for civility.
If I would dare then to make a single suggestions to my successors in office, that would be it. Remember who you are, remember what your responsibilities are, don’t abandon your convictions, be loyal and true to your political allegiance, but also remember that you can do great damage to the country, to your party, to the system, if you do not listen and give credence to the other fellow’s point of view. It’s an essential part of it.
Let me conclude now my friends by telling you that I don’t think our country’s ever been better off than it is today. I had lunch today with a man who found that to be an extraordinary statement. “How can you say that, with the troubles in the Middle East? How can you say that with the domestic difficulties in the country? How can you sit here and say you think the country’s in great shape?” I said “I can say it because I’ve seen it in much worse shape. I’ve seen the country deal with those things, to deal with them successfully and to go on and profit from those things it had to face.” I don’t know how we’ll finally resolve the conflict in the Middle East and I don’t know where the next conflict will be but there will be one someplace. All I know is the system is adept at finding the answer. And I know that the political system is the way that people express their views. I know as well that the greatness of this country and the success flows from the genius of the American people for self government. It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you very much.