Following graduation from McCallie, Howard Baker Jr. joined the US Navy’s V-12 Officer Training Program. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of the South and at Tulane. A 1949 graduate of the university’s College of Law and president of the student body in 1948 to 1949, Baker turned to politics from his well-regarded law career in 1964. This followed the death of his father, who at the time was serving as US representative. Baker’s mother was appointed to fill out the remainder of Baker Sr.’s term as US representative, but Baker Jr.’s parents were not the first of his family to be involved in politics. His grandmother, Lillie Ladd Mauser, became Tennessee’s first female sheriff when she filled her husband’s term as Roane County Sheriff for three months after prisoners escaping from the county jail shot her husband. (She served as the first housemother for Lambda Chi Alpha from 1932 to 1940, where she was called Mother Ladd and was known for chasing a thief from the Clinch Avenue Lambda Chi house at gunpoint.)
In 1964 Baker Jr. ran for the US Senate to fill the unexpired term of the deceased Estes Kefauver and lost to Ross Bass. In 1966 he defeated former Governor Frank Clement in the US Senate race and became the first popularly elected Republican senator in Tennessee history and the first Republican to win a statewide election since 1920. He was reelected to the Senate in 1972 and served as Republican leader and vice-chair of the 1973–74 Watergate Committee, during which he famously asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” He gave the keynote address at the 1976 Republican National Convention. In 1977 he was elected Senate minority leader, and in 1980 he was elected Senate majority leader.
A presidential candidate in 1980, he dropped out on March 5 after losing in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont. He retired from the Senate in 1985. In February 1986 he again announced his candidacy for the presidency, but again withdrew after early primaries.
He returned to national service in 1987 as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff for the final year of Reagan’s presidency. President George W. Bush appointed him ambassador to Japan in 2001—a post he held until spring 2005.
In 1974 he teamed with Kentucky US Senator John Sherman Cooper to forestall a possible dam on the Big South Fork, for which Congress had requested a feasibility study from the Corps of Engineers. Baker and Cooper sponsored a bill to make the Big South Fork a national river. The proposal included having the Corps of Engineers acquire the land, build the facilities for the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and then turn the area over to the National Park Service. Much of the 125,000-acre park is in Scott County where Baker lived.
In 1978, following the US Supreme Court ruling in TVA v. Hill that upheld the Endangered Species Act and thus continued the stoppage of work on the controversial Tellico Dam, Baker spearheaded the introduction by Tennessee members of Congress of a rider to a large appropriations bill that exempted Tellico Dam from the federal act. President Jimmy Carter let the bill pass, and the Tellico floodgates were closed to form Tellico Lake in 1979. Baker’s leadership during 1978 is generally credited as pivotal in the passage of the Panama Canal Treaty, which gradually transferred ownership of the canal to Panama.
On Baker’s retirement from the Senate in 1985, the principal entrance to the Republican leader’s suite in the Capitol (S-230) was designated the Howard H. Baker Jr. Room by Senate resolution, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1979 the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, Illinois, loaned a portrait of Baker (by Herbert Abrams) for display in the suite. In 1999 the Senate Commission on Art created the Senate Leadership Portrait Collection to honor presidents pro tempore and majority and minority leaders. Abrams’s painting of Baker was the first piece acquired after the Senate Leadership Portrait Collection was officially established in 2000 when the Dirksen Congressional Center donated it to the Senate.
The Howard Baker Museum—a replica of the law office of J. F. Baker, Howard Baker Jr.’s grandfather—was built by Scott County High School students on the grounds of Scott County High School. The students also furnished the structure with gifts from the Baker law firm, UT’s Baker Center for Public Policy, the Scott County Historical Society, and others.
In 1996 Baker was the inaugural recipient of the UT Knoxville Founder’s Medal. He was awarded the doctor of humane letters honorary degree from the Knoxville campus in 2005 at the spring commencement ceremony, and he was the inaugural recipient of the Jim and Natalie Haslam Presidential Medal in 2006.
Baker served on the boards of directors of several corporations, including Federal Express, United Technology, and Pennzoil. His principal hobby was photography. He is the author of No Margin for Error (1980), Howard Baker’s Washington (1982), Big South Fork Country (1993), and Scott’s Gulf (2000). His papers, which cover aspects of his political career, are in the Special Collections division of the UT Libraries. He donated his Congressional papers and some two thousand photographs in 1990, and these items are physically located in the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. The rotunda of the College of Law building is named for him.
Baker was married to the former Joy Dirksen, daughter of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. She died in 1993. In 1996 Baker married Nancy Kassebaum, who represented Kansas in the US Senate from 1979 to 1997.
Baker died on June 26, 2014. On that date Governor Haslam ordered Tennessee state flags over the state capitol and state office buildings flown at half-staff until sunset on July 1. Baker lay in repose on campus in the rotunda of the Baker Center building from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Monday, June 30, and funeral services were held Tuesday in his hometown of Huntsville. Attending the funeral were Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Former Senators Fred Thompson, Elizabeth Dole, Bennett Johnston, John Danforth, and Pete Domenici attended, as did former Vice President Al Gore and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Lamar Alexander gave the eulogy. Baker was praised in the national and local press for his civility and ability to bring people together.