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Baker and Cheney: A Tale of Two Republicans

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Howard Baker and his old pal Dick Cheney""-their bodies worn yet ample from years of dining high on the political hog--soaked up attention in all their faded glory at Tuesday's groundbreaking for the Baker Center for Public Policy.

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 couldn't 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 might've been America's most influential White House Chief of Staff, under Reagan. Cheney has been our most active vice-president""maybe the man most responsible for the war in Iraq""OK, 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 Cheney's governing represent two distinct versions of what it means to be a Republican. Historians who sniff beneath the lid of Baker's 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 world's game plan for surviving the nuclear age.

Baker helped figure out ways to make market forces work for the benefit of a cleaner, fairer, safer world.

Maybe his greatest achievement came in the late 1980s, when Baker took charge of the daily agenda of a president facing ruin""and guided him back towards triumph. With Baker's encouragement, a forgetful Ronald Reagan apologized to the nation for his administration's 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. It's 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 might've become president. He positioned himself beautifully in the 1970s by asking something that has become an iconic question about Nixon's role in Watergate. "What did the president know and when did he know it?" Many are asking the same question about George W. Bush.

By posing that question in 1973 Baker became one of the best-known politicians in the country. It was his position on the Panama Canal""that the right and sensible thing was to give it to the Panamanians""that might've deep-sixed his own presidential aspirations. His was the vote of a principled man. Baker was a Republican many of us were proud to vote for, yet he sacrificed his own presidential ambitions in the 1980s to help save the Grand Old Party. It was a far, far better thing he did than...

Well, than his old pal Dick Cheney has ever done. Here near the close of Cheney's life in public service, he leaves the legacy of a dishonest war, corrupt energy deals, conflicts of interest, and support for torture. To many, Cheney's 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 America's 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 McCain's 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.
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)
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