Max Holland: Was Howard Baker Really Mr. Clean?

Roundup: Historians' Take

In an above-the-fold Op-Ed in the New York Times on November 2, GOP über-lobbyist Kenneth Duberstein offered President Bush a timely history lesson on how to rescue his flagging administration. Duberstein certainly has the credentials to give such advice. In 1987, when Ronald Reagan's public approval rating was about as low (because of the Iran-contra scandal) as Bush's is now, Duberstein became part of the new White House team that rescued Reagan from being not just a lame duck, but a "dead duck," for the balance of his second term.

Duberstein's first suggestion to Bush was that he clean house and bring in experienced managers untainted by scandal, just as Reagan made former Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) his new chief of staff in 1987. "Senator Baker gave the operation an instant dose of integrity: it was he, as a Republican legislator during Watergate, who demanded, 'what did the president know, and when did he know it?'"

In point of fact, when Howard Baker voiced his famous question in 1973, the Tennessee senator's purpose was to insulate Richard Nixon from John Dean's damaging Senate testimony, essentially by pitting Dean's word against the president's. Baker had no idea that secret tape-recordings existed; if he had, he never would have posed this central question. Far from wrapping Nixon in an impermeable legal cocoon, it brought the president down.

Baker was not just loyal to Nixon, moreover, which would have been fair enough. He played a double game on the Senate Watergate committee, cooperating with chairman Sam Ervin but also acting as the president's agent on the panel, as historian Stanley Kutler documented in his 1990 book on Watergate. While Baker often counseled Nixon to cooperate, he also served as a "back channel" for confidential information about the panel's investigative tactics and priorities.

But nothing illustrates Baker's lack of scruples 30 years ago more than his desperate but futile effort (together with then-minority-counsel-turned-senator-now-actor Fred Thompson) to implicate the Central Intelligence Agency in Watergate at the eleventh hour. Barely a month before Nixon's resignation, Baker released a study that tried to insinuate that the scandal "just reeked of [illegal] domestic operations" by the CIA.

The next time a political partisan is given prime space on the Op-Ed page, the Times may want to fact-check the history. Duberstein's version is only suitable for the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, a $15 million facility at the University of Tennessee that had its ground-breaking on November 16, with Vice President Cheney in attendance.

A footnote: According to the Weekly Standard, former senator Thompson is just the kind of articulate advocate the administration desperately needs to defend itself against charges that it misrepresented pre-war intelligence about Iraq.

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Michael Green - 12/2/2005

Fred Thompson would be better off remaining on "Law & Order," where he does a marvelous job playing the district attorney, than trying to serve as the defense attorney for an administration whose leaders are culpable in the deaths of innocent American soldiers who went to Iraq for no good reason.