This op-ed was originally published by POLITICO.
Howard Baker was immensely respected in the Senate — as much as anyone I’ve ever known. All the more because he didn’t attempt to “command” it.
He enjoys telling the story of his maiden floor speech. His detailed oration prompted Sen. Everett Dirksen to suggest to him that the “unexpressed thought” was sometimes more persuasive. Howard took this to heart, and “eloquent listening,” as he called it, became a secret of his influence.
As Republican leader and then majority leader, Howard helped lead the nation through civil rights, the war on poverty, Vietnam, Watergate, the Panama Canal treaty, several Middle East wars and the Cold War. Every era has its trials. But few people in public life have ever dealt with so many momentous events with such poise, purpose and success.
He took on the heroic act of persuading President Richard M. Nixon to resign — for the good of the country and the Republican Party. But Howard’s view was simple. He was the senior Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee, and under the Constitution, felt it was his responsibility to act on behalf of the American people.
During the Panama Canal debate, he advocated passing the treaty. I strenuously disagreed. While he was tireless in trying to persuade me, he never hectored. Partly, he knew he would need my vote later on something else.
But this also reflected his sense of perspective and humility. So many issues are complex, and the right thing is not always clear. I may have been wrong on the canal. And Howard occasionally has second thoughts on his support. But you can only act in real time.
Howard understood that what makes the Senate work is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of hearts as well as minds, frailties as well as strengths, of one’s colleagues and one’s self. That was – and is — his true political secret.
He realized, like Abraham Lincoln, that “we are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.” Howard can be a passionate partisan — and a tremendously effective one. Just ask people who had to deal with him on key GOP priorities in the Senate or when he was President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff.
But he also understood that sometimes you need to compromise — because it’s in your long-term interest and the country’s. As Reagan used to say, get me 70 percent and we’ll get the rest next year. Howard’s 70 percent is generally better than anyone else’s 100.
The first thing to know about Bob Dole is that, in World War II, he nearly gave his life in the service of his country — and then he dedicated his life to public service when he came home.
This sacrifice and commitment made Bob special in the annals of 20th century politics. But what has made him unique is his insistence on rising above partisanship when necessary — and his persistence in pursuing the national interest, whatever the political risk.
These were the qualities that led Bob to engineer the historic 1983 rescue of the Social Security system. He brought together people as disparate as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Florida Rep. Claude Pepper to support a difficult, but essential, plan to restore the financial integrity of a program on which millions of people depend.
As my successor as Senate majority leader, following his legendary service as chairman of the Finance Committee, Bob shepherded through the Senate the most successful tax reform legislation in history in 1986.
And the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act simply wouldn’t have become law without Bob’s passion and determination.
While well known for his skill at political combat, Bob was better known for his wit, his wisdom and the extraordinarily graceful way in which he dealt with the disabilities of his wartime injuries.
No one has done more to help our veterans and their families. But it is characteristic of Bob that he says little about his service — in war and in public life. I am proud to have this opportunity to pay tribute to a remarkable man, whose accomplishments in war and peace cannot be exaggerated.
Like me, Bob finds himself thinking more and more these days about how fortunate he has been to lead and serve a great nation in times of immense challenge. “A century of service” makes us sound even older than we are. But Bob and I are grateful for the rare opportunity we have had to help chart the course of history. And we wish our successors all the best in their turn on the great stage of leadership.
Former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker and Bob Dole are co-founders of the Bipartisan Policy Center and honorees of its “Century of Service” celebration in Washington Wednesday.
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