Did Howard Baker save Ronald Reagan's presidency? (+video)

Howard Baker's strong advice helped Reagan through the Iran-Contra scandal, but he also knew when to back down. He urged dropping the line, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' but the words were the president's own, and they stayed.

By , Staff Writer

In his last big public job in Washington, Howard Baker served as President Reagan’s chief of staff.

Baker, who passed away Thursday at his home, entered the White House at a time when the Iran-Contra affair had depressed the president’s mood and poll ratings. Reagan’s friends and advisers figured that the former Senate majority leader from Tennessee, known for calmness and conciliation, would snap the nation’s chief executive out of his slump.

Baker himself wasn’t sure he should take the job. It was February 1987. As Baker recounts the story, he had been retired from the Senate for two years and was doing well in private legal practice. But he still had political ambitions of his own and had traveled to Florida with his family so they could hold a conference to determine whether he would run for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination.

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“We were in Miami and that conversation ran down in a hurry so I took my then six-year old grandson to the zoo,” said Baker in an oral history about his relationship with Reagan collected by the Miller Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

While Baker was enjoying the animals, Reagan called the location where they were staying, and got Baker’s late wife, Joy. When told the man he wanted to speak with was at the zoo, the president chuckled and said something to the effect of, “Wait until he sees the zoo I have in mind for him."

Reagan requested that Baker fly to meet him at the White House the next day. Figuring what was up, Baker practiced saying “no” all the way to Washington. His reasoning was that he’d retired as his own decision after a long public career and wanted to maintain his political options going forward.

A White House car whisked Baker from National Airport to the more hidden southwest entrance to the executive mansion. He went up to the presidential living quarters on the third floor.

“The elevator door opened and there stood Ronald Reagan, who said: ‘Howard, I have to have a new chief of staff and I want you do to it.' I heard myself say, ‘All right.' That was the end of my good resolve,” said Baker in the oral history.

Overall, he was surprised Reagan had offered the job and surprised he had taken it. But it worked out well for both men. Baker immediately moved into action, planning a presidential speech that was something of a mea culpa for Iran-Contra’s excesses, rebuilding lines of communication with key lawmakers, and shunting aside aides tainted by hints of scandal.

Baker later said that he found Reagan personally down, and that providing the president with a clear plan for moving forward helped his mood enormously. Reagan was an unaccountably optimistic politician, he said – somebody who chose to go forward with the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, despite warnings of strong opposition, because he thought he could personally win enough votes for confirmation.

He couldn’t. Bork’s nomination failed. But Reagan just moved on.

“He regretted that Bork lost, but it was not a devastating loss to him,” said Baker in his oral history.

Reagan was a unique political personality, according to Baker. He was a quick study, someone who remembered the positions his aides took, but then essentially deleted information when he no longer needed it.

“When things were done, he just deleted them from his mind and went on to other things,” said Baker.

He liked strong people around him, but occasionally reminded them that he was the president, according to his former chief of staff.

Baker did not describe himself as the wonder worker who rescued a tottering presidency. (Other figures, such as David Abshire, have claimed a role helping Reagan restore trust in the presidency during the Iran-Contra scandal.) To make a point about the essentially random nature of political winds, Baker told the Miller Center a story that reflects on his own modesty.

It dealt with Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in front of the then-extant Berlin Wall, on June 12, 1987. In preparation for that address, Baker read the speech draft as it came from the writers, back in Washington. When he got to the line that said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," he objected.

“You really ought to take that out. It’s so unlikely, so unpresidential,” Baker told the speechwriters.

But they objected, and he caved. It turned out to be one of the most famous lines of Reagan’s presidency and seemed prescient when Gorbachev in essence allowed the wall to be torn down two years later.

As it turned out, Reagan himself wrote that line, according to Baker. They were “yellow pad words."

Reagan did lots of writing and scribbling on yellow legal pads. They were not ordinary paper – each page contained a secret watermark, which if held the right way, identified it as presidential material. It allowed his aides to check a note’s provenance.

“That’s why I called them yellow pad words. If they were written down on Ronald Reagan’s yellow pad, we used them,” said Baker in his oral history.

Baker stayed at the White House a year and a half, resigning in July 1988. He was succeeded by his deputy, Kenneth Duberstein. It was his last act in Washington, though he was later appointed ambassador to Japan, a position traditionally filled by retired luminaries or elder statesmen.

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