May Howard Baker inspire us all to unite
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.
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