It clearly had been a while since either wielded a shovel, as they awkwardly grasped handles to turn loose soil in a bin set up for the purpose at a University of Tennessee auditorium in Knoxville. Watching replays on TV news, I was sorry Baker had sullied the day by bringing in Cheney, who predictably drew heckles, and I couldnt help reflecting on the different faces of the Republican Party the pair represented.
It would hardly be exaggerating to say both have called shots for the most powerful nation in the history of the world. Baker mightve been Americas most influential White House Chief of Staff, under Reagan. Cheney has been our most active vice-presidentmaybe the man most responsible for the war in IraqOK, him and Saddam--and Cheney might yet become president should Bush vacate the office for any number of reasons one can imagine.
And yet the ways of Baker and Cheneys governing represent two distinct versions of what it means to be a Republican. Historians who sniff beneath the lid of Bakers career find a rich stew of initiative and accomplishment. As the first Republican U.S. senator to hail from Tennessee since Reconstruction, Baker helped change the world, building a portfolio that included the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, easing Richard Nixon from power, initiating Fair Housing and Voter Rights legislation, returning the Panama Canal, and helping to lower the saber-rattling with the former Soviet Union during a time when Mutually Assured Destruction was the name of the worlds game plan for surviving the nuclear age.
Maybe his greatest achievement came in the late 1980s, when Baker took charge of the daily agenda of a president facing ruinand guided him back towards triumph. With Bakers encouragement, a forgetful Ronald Reagan apologized to the nation for his administrations illegal arms dealings and wars in Central America, and began all over again. By force of sheer good will, uncommon sense and political astuteness, Baker helped Reagan increase negotiations with the Soviets on arms control, trade and human rights, and with resurgent Democrats over the economy and other issues. Its largely a tribute to Baker that many now regard Reagan as one of our most effective presidents. One can imagine a far different outcome.
In watching the genial Baker, Tuesday, the irony was not lost that had he been more cutthroat, more
Machiavellian, he mightve become president. He positioned himself beautifully in the 1970s by asking something that has become an iconic question about Nixons role in Watergate. What did the president know and when did he know it? Many are asking the same question about George W. Bush.
Well, than his old pal Dick Cheney has ever done. Here near the close of Cheneys life in public service, he leaves the legacy of a dishonest war, corrupt energy deals, conflicts of interest, and support for torture. To many, Cheneys sneer has come to represent the Republican Party at its nadir.
How could a party be so tone deaf as to publicly support torture, even while absurdly lying about it. "We do not torture," Bush declares. Yet senate leader Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert vow to get to the bottom of who blew the whistle on Americas establishment of hell-hole prisons in third world countries where torture or something like it is routinely carried out. Bush has vowed to veto Sen. John McCains popular anti-torture bill, and Cheney has pressed to exempt the CIA from its provisions. Try to imagine Cheney promoting something so useful, sane and benign as clean water, clean air, voting rights or peace. Just try. Then shed a tear for the Grand Old Party. It was a better home for moderates and reflective conservatives when Baker presented its more gracious face.