The press reveals its crushes — once the crushes are dead
When prospecting the media for signs of bias, don’t forget to read the obituary pages, where reputations go to get taxidermied.
Because most deaths follow the actuarial tables, newspapers bake and freeze ahead of time the obituaries of the famous and aging, defrosting and garnishing them with final details for serving when death finally claims the subject. Last week, the aged obituaries of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who died at 88, were published. Though they might not teem with bias, they illustrate the media crush on Republicans who make deals with Democrats.
If Baker’s obits were theater reviews, you’d have to say he earned raves for being, as the New York Times Page One headline put it, the “‘Great Conciliator’ of the Senate.” The bias on display in the premeditated Times obituary, as well as obits in the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is not for left or right. Instead, it swings prejudicial in favor of a politician who kept legislation moving.
The press disdains inaction because of the difficulty of writing about nothing. Without overtly editorializing, the Baker obituaries smile on his traffic cop-like skills at preventing Washington gridlock, his ability to use his personal skills to sluice bills through committee, build compromises, collect and trade votes and get bills passed. As long as Baker was around, there was something to write about.
To his list of legislative wins, the obits cite Baker’s support of environmental legislation, civil rights and fair-housing bills, and the relinquishing of the Panama Canal. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, another liberal initiative. Yet Baker was no Democratic Party flunky: He opposed school busing and, as Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985, backed cuts in food stamps and other entitlements, as well as President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and military build-up.
The ease with which Baker’s conscience allowed him to ignore party lines made him the ideal power broker. As the obits tell us, he supported the ERA, but opposed an extension of the ratification deadline, which gave him standing in both camps. The son of a former member of Congress and the son-in-law of Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), another untangler of gridlock, Baker first ran for the Senate in 1964 as a hardcore conservative, and lost.
Getting the message, two years later he ran again, this time as a moderate, and with Richard M. Nixon’s help he won — becoming the first Republican elected to the Senate by Tennessee voters since Reconstruction. Although Baker paid lip-service to capitalism, he swore greater allegiance to the federal government-owned energy behemoth, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides low-cost electric energy to the state via dams, coal plants and nuclear reactors.
If moderate is another way to say “no-principle, deal-making opportunist,” Baker was a leading moderate from 1966 on. In 1982, he labeled himself a “moderate to moderate conservative,” whatever that means.
To be fair to Baker, I don’t suppose he ever thought he was retarding the Republican agenda with his political shape-shifting. When he first got to the Senate, liberal Republicans like Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), still walked the chamber, as did conservative Democratic senators. Dealing across party lines didn’t automatically mark you as a traitor to your cause. Indeed, a good bargain struck with a member of the opposing party could prove you a loyalist to your cause.
This “bipartisan comity” and “talent for compromise,” which the Post obituary identifies with Baker, wasn’t just a function of his warm personality. Everybody was dealing back in the 1960s and the 1970s. Republicans like Baker, being in the legislative minority, had no choice but to compromise with the Democrats if they hoped to reap patronage for their constituents.
To give you a sense of how undisciplined the parties were back then, in 1976 Baker sought to work closely with President Jimmy Carter on developing a bipartisan foreign policy — an offer Carter accepted because he didn’t have the uniform support of his own party.
The so-called death of Washington comity, civility and compromise, which writers like the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank seem to mourn, has less to do with the exit from Capitol Hill of legislators like Baker than the way the political sorting machine has dealt nearly all conservatives to the Republican Party and all liberals to the Democratic Party.
As the two parties have become more ideological they’ve discouraged both the election of moderates and the cutting of compromises. Both sides would rather win than conciliate, and as long as Congress is split by the two parties, they have little incentive to deal-make.
They don’t make flexible politicians like Baker anymore, unless you count former Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democratic senator from Connecticut who reached so far across the aisle that he ended up declaring himself an independent and accepting campaign help from Republicans to win reelection in 2006. Oh, he also endorsed Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican nominee for president in 2008.
Will the obituaries be as kind to his brand of bipartisanship as they were for Baker’s? I doubt it, if only because the press corps’ idea of a good Republican is one who makes common cause with Democrats, not Democrats like Lieberman who consort with Republican presidents like George W. Bush. I predict a hammer and tongs send off for Joe when he goes.
The obituaries do a better job capturing the Bakerness of Baker in their portrayals of him as the ranking minority member on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973. Baker met with Nixon and his aides to discuss how to control the scope of the hearings, and when he tossed his famous question to White House Counsel John Dean, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” his real intention was to protect his old friend and one-time political patron Nixon.
As Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor pointed out last week in a fine piece, Baker “was attempting to wall off the president from the actions of aides who might have done something wrong.” As Baker sensed Nixon was going down, he let him fall.
As Watergate historian Stanley I. Kutler wrote in 1990, Baker “emerged from a Democratic-dominated show with his reputation substantially enhanced.” Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., the chairman of the Watergate committee, so approved of Baker’s performance that in 1981 he said, “I’d be glad to support him for president if only he’d run on the Democratic ticket.”
Baker did campaign for president in 1980, doing miserably. Perhaps because he ran as a Republican and voters saw through the disguise that the press, its eyes gone cloudy with nostalgia for a lost time, seems blind to.
The subject of my favorite obituary of all time is Graham Mason. Send your favorite obit to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Consider my Twitter feed a slow-form self-obituary. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: The U.S. flag flies at half-staff on the Capitol dome in memory of former Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) in Washington June 27, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
New U. S. Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker, Jr. makes a statement upon arrival at the New Tokyo International Airport at Narita, east of Tokyo July 3, 2001.