May Howard Baker in­spire us all to unite

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - Your Turn Guest colum­nist

Be­fore coming to Washington I was chief of staff to Demo­cratic Speaker of the Ten­nessee House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Ned McWherter.

In 1976 I be­came Gover­nor Jimmy Carter’s Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign Man­ager in Ten­nessee. Fol­low­ing Pres­i­dent Carter’s elec­tion, I was hon­ored to work in the White House as Spe­cial As­sis­tant to the Pres­i­dent for Con­gres­sional Li­ai­son as­signed to the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

My of­fice phone rang shortly af­ter the In­au­gu­ra­tion and it was Sen­a­tor Howard Baker, a long­time friend of Ned McWherter. My White House Se­nate Li­ai­son col­leagues were shocked that the Se­nate Repub­li­can Leader was call­ing for me.

Sen­a­tor Baker called to welcome me to Washington, and to tell me he was happy that I was work­ing in the White House. He asked what he could do to help me.

This caught me off guard, and I said, “Sen­a­tor, I’m as­signed to cover the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, not the Se­nate,” im­ply­ing that I didn’t know if he could be of help.

Sen­a­tor Baker laughed and said, “Come see me in my Capi­tol of­fice in the morn­ing and we’ll see how I can help.”

Re­mem­ber he was not just the se­nior sen­a­tor from Ten­nessee, he was the Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader and oc­cu­pied a his­toric of­fice in the Capi­tol build­ing.

We vis­ited over cof­fee and talked of mu­tual friends back in Ten­nessee.

Even­tu­ally, he said, “Jim, I’ve thought of a way I can help.”

The dif­fer­ence be­tween par­ti­san and bi­par­ti­san

We left his of­fice and walked right through Stat­u­ary Hall on the main floor of the Capi­tol from the Se­nate over to the House.

As heads snapped around since Se­nate lead­ers rarely come to the House (it’s usu­ally the other way around), Sen­a­tor Baker walked me into the of­fices of Repub­li­can Leader John Rhodes, R-Ariz., Repub­li­can Whip Bob Michael, R-Ill., and GOP Cau­cus Chair John An­der­son, R-Ill., the top three mem­bers of the House Repub­li­can Lead­er­ship.

He said the same thing to each of them: “This is Jim Free and he’s my friend from home. He’s do­ing House Con­gres­sional Li­ai­son at the Carter White House. If the is­sue isn’t par­ti­san, try to work with Jim, and if it is par­ti­san, you should whip his ass!” and they all had a hearty laugh.

This in­tro­duc­tion helped im­mensely with House Repub­li­can Lead­er­ship, and the Carter White House passed an enor­mous amount of bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion. I should say that Sen­a­tor Baker dis­liked be­ing called bi­par­ti­san. He would force­fully say “I am not bi­par­ti­san. I’m a par­ti­san Repub­li­can, but I do like to im­prove pub­lic pol­icy and thus look for ways to work with the other side of the aisle.”

My wife Ann Free’s fa­vorite phone call from Sen­a­tor Baker oc­curred four years later. I was re­cently mar­ried and, be­cause Pres­i­dent Carter lost his bid for re-elec­tion in 1980, with­out a job.

Just be­fore Thanks­giv­ing Sen­a­tor Baker called us at home to ask how I was do­ing. He wanted to know if I planned stay in Washington or move back to Ten­nessee, and asked how he could be of as­sis­tance in the next phase of my ca­reer.

Washington has changed so much since then and with to­day’s di­vi­sive­ness, it’s hard to imag­ine some­thing like this hap­pen­ing to­day.

What a great man and pa­triot the na­tion had in Sen­a­tor Howard Baker. The coun­try is sorely in need of his kind of bi­par­ti­san­ship now.

Jim Free worked in pol­i­tics in Ten­nessee and Washington, D.C.

TEN­NESSEAN

U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, left, and Sher­iff Fate Thomas and Po­lice Lt. Charles E. “Goose” War­ren at the March 2, 1978 for the 24th an­nual Sure Shot Rab­bit Hunters As­so­ci­a­tion sup­per. JIMMY EL­LIS / THE

Jim Free

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