Howard Baker: the real story of his famous Watergate question

Howard Baker, who accomplished much in his years in Washington, may be best remembered for a single question he asked as a senator during the Watergate investigation.

This file photo shows Sen. Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee (r.) and Fred Thompson, chief minority counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee (l.), talking during the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 17, 1973.

The most famous sentence Howard Baker ever uttered was his immortal line about Watergate: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

It was late June 1973. Senator Baker, who passed away on Thursday at his home in Tennessee, was the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee convened to investigate the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building.

President Richard Nixon had conspired to cover up White House involvement in that break-in early after its discovery. But the country did not know that at the time. Baker didn’t either.

Nixon thought Baker would be his ally on a panel that might be dangerous. At the start, the Tennessee lawmaker had acted as if that might be the case. On Feb. 22, 1973, he met secretly with Nixon in the Oval Office. He told the president the committee planned to build political pressure slowly, taking testimony from smaller figures first and then moving to try to get appearances from higher-ranking officials such as Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Nixon suggested a deal whereby the highest-ranking witnesses would give private testimony. Baker demurred. He could not have approved such an arrangement on his own in any case.

“At least Baker is smart enough to get through the meeting without being drawn into obstruction of justice himself,” wrote political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in a 2013 summary of the incident.

Then John Dean decided to come clean. Mr. Dean was White House counsel and a cover-up coordinator. (For instance, he had supervised payments of hush money to the Watergate burglars.) In early April, he began talking to the Senate committee and revealing what he knew. Nixon fired him on April 30.

Dean’s public testimony before the Senate panel, including Baker, began on June 25, 1973. He read a statement for the first two days and then answered questions. On June 29, Baker, in his easy drawl, began his try at Dean.

“My primary thesis is still, what did the president know, and when did he know it?” said the senator.

What’s forgotten today is that Baker thought he was protecting Nixon with that line. He was attempting to wall off the president from the actions of aides who might have done something wrong.

“He evidently meant to exculpate Nixon from prior knowledge of the break-in,” wrote historian Fred Emery in his book “Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon.”

But Dean turned this question around. Among other things, he charged that Nixon had been involved in discussions about clemency for those who had carried out and organized the break-ins, as well as talks about payoffs. Dean said the president had continued these activities even after he, as White House counsel, had warned his boss of a “cancer” on the presidency.

Nixon had already denied all these things. It was his word against Dean’s. In that standoff the president might well have won the benefit of the doubt from the Senate and the US people.

Then in early July, another Nixon aide revealed to the panel the existence of the White House tapes. A record existed that could prove whether Nixon or Dean was right.

At that point Baker continued to press, not for Nixon’s advantage, but for the truth. His careful and detailed questioning won him widespread national attention and praise.

He later tried himself to become president, but fell short of the GOP nomination. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and as an ambassador to Japan. But his Watergate question, and the answers it unearthed, may stand as his primary legacy.

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