Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who served as ranking minority member on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and whose frequent question “What did the president know and when did he know it?” entered the national lexicon, died Thursday at his home in Hunstville, Tenn. He was 88.
Tom Griscom, an aide to the former senator, said he had suffered a stroke a few days ago.
Mr. Baker’s moderate views and pragmatic approach did not appeal to voters when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, and he withdrew from the campaign a week after the New Hampshire primary.
But his unflashy style and talent for compromise earned him a high reputation among fellow senators. In 1977, he became Senate minority leader and, after the Ronald Reagan-led GOP landslide of 1980, majority leader. He served in that post from 1981 to 1985, when he retired from the Senate. The high regard for Mr. Baker wasn’t limited to his fellow Republicans. In a November 1980 diary entry, Jimmy Carter described him as “the best possible Republican leader we could have.”
His colleagues on Thursday recalled Mr. Baker’s ability to reach across the political aisle.
‘‘He was my friend, my mentor, and my colleague in the Senate. Howard was involved in countless endeavors, most importantly as a proud representative of Tennessee in Congress,’’ said former senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, on Thursday. “He was a Republican leader who got things done by working with both parties when it was the right thing to do. Howard has left a lasting imprint on civility in politics.’’ Dole succeeded Mr. Baker as majority leader.
In 1987, President Reagan turned to Mr. Baker to help control the damage from the Iran-Contra scandal. He succeeded Donald Regan as White House chief of staff, remaining in that post for 16 months.
In the words of James A. Baker 3d (no relation), who had served earlier as President Reagan’s chief of staff and was later his treasury secretary and President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, Mr. Baker was “the quintessential mediator, negotiator, and moderator.”
Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born on Nov. 15, 1925, in Huntsville, Tenn. That part of the state had resisted secession during the Civil War, and Mr. Baker had deep Republican roots. His grandfather was a judge, his grandmother was the state’s first female sheriff, and his father was a US representative from 1951 to 1964.
After serving briefly in the Navy at the end of World War II, Mr. Baker studied at the University of the South and Tulane University. He earned a law degree at the University of Tennessee, where he was student body president. He then joined the Knoxville law firm founded by his grandfather and made a name for himself as one of the state’s top lawyers. He was dubbed “Old Two-to-Ten,” a tribute to the light sentences he generally won his clients. Mr. Baker rejoined the firm in 2005, as senior counsel.
After losing a Senate race in 1964, Mr. Baker won two years later with 56 percent of the vote, becoming the first Republican senator to be popularly elected from the state. He easily won reelection in 1972 and 1978.
Richard Nixon offered Mr. Baker a seat on the Supreme Court, in 1971. When he delayed in accepting, Nixon instead offered it to William H. Rehnquist.
In the Senate, Mr. Baker quickly came to prominence, helped both by his knack for consensus building — “He’s like the Tennessee River,” Mr. Baker’s stepmother once said, “he flows right down the middle” — and the fact that his father-in-law was minority leader Everett M. Dirksen, Republican of Illinois. He was one of three Southern senators to support open-housing legislation in 1968 and was an author of the legislation providing for federal revenue sharing with the states.
Mr. Baker ran for minority leader after Dirksen’s death, in 1969. He lost to Senator Hugh Scott, Republican of Pennsylvania, whom he unsuccessfully opposed again in 1971. Mr. Baker later said that Scott put him on the Watergate panel to punish him.
Instead, his unemphatic, evenhanded questioning of witnesses before a nationwide television audience made him famous — and a leading contender for the 1976 Republican vice presidential nomination, which went to Dole.
The scandal that became known as Watergate referred to the 1972 bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters by operatives working for Nixon’s reelection campaign and subsequent efforts by Nixon and high-level associates to cover up White House involvement.
Daily network broadcast of the hearings held by the Senate select committee charged with investigating the scandal became a national phenomenon in the spring of 1973. Mr. Baker faced a daunting task as the committee’s ranking minority member: trying to look out for Nixon’s interests while not seeming overly partisan — and not getting lost in the shadow of the committee’s colorful chairman, Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina.
While Ervin became something of a folk hero, Mr. Baker’s questioning made him a model of fairness and reasoned moderation.
The scandal resulted in Nixon resigning the presidency in 1974.
Later, as Senate minority leader, Mr. Baker supported ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. This drew the ire of GOP conservatives, helping doom his presidential bid in 1980.
Mr. Baker proved an invaluable ally of Reagan as Senate majority leader, leading the charge for the tax and budget cuts of 1981. “I don’t think we could have had the successes that we’ve had up there [on Capitol Hill] without his leadership,” Reagan said of Mr. Baker. For all his success, Mr. Baker likened his role as legislative point man to trying to “push a wet noodle” and chose not to run for reelection in 1984.
He joined the Washington law firm of Vinson & Elkins and explored his presidential options for 1988 — until he answered Reagan’s call to take over as chief of staff, at which time he removed himself from presidential contention.
Mr. Baker, who was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1984, served as ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005. In 2007, Mr. Baker was one of four former Senate leaders to found the Bipartisan Policy Center. The others were Dole and Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle.
In 1982, Mr. Baker published a book, “Howard Baker’s Washington,” a collection of favorite photographs. A passionate amateur photographer, Mr. Baker had a number of one-man exhibitions.
Mr. Baker’s wife, Joy, died in 1993. In 1996, he married former senator Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas. In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, Darek, a daughter, Cynthia, four grandsons, a sister, Mary Stuart, and half-sister, Beverly Patestides.