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Howard Baker: Courageous Leader and Congressional Cutup

(Editor's Note: Sen. Baker died on June 26. Congressman Yarmuth wrote about some of their time working together in the piece below which also appeared today in the Huffington Post.)

As a young Senate staffer in the early 70s, I tended to form my opinions on the members based not on how they voted, but by how they treated us. Other than my boss, former Kentucky Republican Marlow Cook, my favorite member was Howard Baker. When he died on June 26, I was flooded by memories of the four years I spent working around him.

Whether my relationship with Baker was special to him I will never know, but it was special to me, and I thought it would be nice to share some of those memories.

I did most of my boss’s work on the Senate Commerce Committee, on which Sen. Baker sat. During a field hearing in New York on the subliminal strategies of advertisers, Baker was suffering from heartburn and asked me if I happened to be carrying any antacid.

By chance I had some Gelusil and gladly offered him a few. I thought no more about it until a few days later when I received a handwritten note from the Senator. “Dear John,” it began. “I greatly appreciate your assistance in alleviating my digestive discomfort during our recent field hearing. You have performed a great service for the people of Tennessee. Unfortunately, pursuant to my responsibilities as an elected official sworn to uphold the laws of the land, I am compelled to turn your name over to the American Medical Association for practicing medicine without a license. Sincerely, Howard Baker.”

That was typical Howard Baker, a thoughtful man with enormous capacity for humor and warmth.

I was in my twenties then, and as it was the 70s, I wore wild-and-crazy bellbottom suits with broad lapels and bright wide ties. Baker, to be honest, was a sartorial disaster. He wore ill-fitting, baggy suits that did nothing but cover his body. “Frumpy” would be the most descriptive term. Nevertheless, on an almost daily basis he would roll his eyes when he saw me, mocking my clothing choices and asking sarcastically, “Where do you buy your suits?”

This went on for months and months. Finally one day he stopped me and asked me seriously, “Where DO you buy your suits?” I told him, not really thinking he was planning a makeover. Sure enough, over the next few months he began wearing more stylish and flattering suits, and, shall we say, bolder ties and shirts.

I of course commented on how good he looked and asked where he was shopping. “Just where you suggested,” he said with a smile.

I have a treasure trove of Baker memories, all of which reinforce my sense of Howard Baker as one of the most decent people with whom I have worked. While I was simply a young staffer, he never treated me or my colleagues as anything else but equals.

As I recall, every year or so a survey was done of Senate Pages as to which members they liked the most. Baker and my boss always finished first and second – in one order or the other – which means I was just about the luckiest staffer on the Hill.

All of the public tributes over the past weeks have discussed Baker’s bipartisanship, his courage, and his intellect. Indeed, he was a Senator whom everyone, colleague and staff member alike, respected. I have always felt honored to know him and, while he may not have thought of me as such, to have considered him my friend. As the world will miss him, I will miss him a little bit more.

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