Howard Baker.
Howard Baker. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

Former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, whose Washington career included stints as majority leader and White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, has died at age 88 from complications of a stroke, his law firm and Senate Republicans said Thursday.

As vice-chair of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, Baker famously focused the inquiry on the phrase: What did the president know, and when did he know it? He was Senate majority leader for the Republicans from 1981 to 1985 and later served as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005.

“Senator Baker truly earned his nickname, The Great Conciliator,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties.”

Baker was a senior counsel to Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. He had returned to the firm after his time in the Senate, and again after his stint in the White House. Baker, whose grandfather founded the firm, had lobbied on behalf of telecommunications and health care companies, as well as other clients. Affiliate publication The American Lawyer honored Baker in 2008 with a Lifetime Achiever award.

Baker was active in the firm, giving clients strategic advice about public policy and international issues, firm Chairman Ben Adams said. Adams said Baker was an approachable, genuine and humble leader that made everyone around him feel comfortable.

“It’s a tremendous loss for everyone who knew him in every capacity, because he was an outstanding man and outstanding public servant,” Adams said in a written statement. “He’s done so much for this country that it’s hard to put it in perspective. He’s always been admired and respected for his ability to cross party lines.”

Baker also had been considered for an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court that was eventually filled by William Rehnquist, according to a book written by President Richard Nixon’s former White House lawyer, John Dean.

“Finally, when Senator Howard Baker dithered one day too many before accepting the nomination, Nixon decided on Rehnquist, largely because he was the last person standing,” The New York Times wrote in a review of the book, “The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court.”

In a statement Thursday evening, President Obama said: “Howard was many things over the course of his career—from Senate Majority Leader, to White House Chief of Staff, to Ambassador. Yet, it was his ability to broker compromise and his unofficial role as the “Great Conciliator” that won him admirers across party lines, over multiple generations, and beyond the state he called home.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com. On Twitter: @ToddRuger.

Updated at 9:27 p.m.