Howard H. Baker Jr., the Republican senator from Tennessee who framed the question that cut to the heart of the official inquiry into the Watergate scandal, died Thursday, four days after a stroke. He was 88.
His death at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., was announced by a spokeswoman at his Memphis law firm, Baker Donelson, where he had been senior counsel.
A moderate Republican with bipartisan skill, Baker played many leading roles in his long government career, including White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan and later U.S. ambassador to Japan.
But he was most famous for the one question he asked of witnesses during the 1973 Watergate hearings: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
The answers doomed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and sealed Baker's reputation as that rare find: a thoughtful politician who, as one reporter suggested, "had nothing at heart but the interests of our country."
Baker initially believed in Nixon's innocence but changed his mind as evidence accumulated of White House involvement in the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
The Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices -- popularly known as the Ervin committee, after its chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C. -- was hardly a coveted assignment for politicians seeking to get ahead.
Baker had admired Nixon but was placed on the panel by Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., as punishment for having challenged Scott for the leadership post.
The Watergate hearings, televised live, wound up catapulting Baker to national attention, laying the groundwork for his presidential bid in 1980. But his role also drew the distrust of right-wing Republicans, who would never forgive him for contributing to the pressure that forced Nixon's resignation and later lobbied against his efforts to win the vice presidential spot on the Republican ticket in 1976 and 1980.
The scion of a politically powerful family in Huntsville, a hamlet about 130 miles east of Nashville, Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born Nov. 15, 1925.
His grandfather was a judge, his grandmother the first female sheriff in Tennessee. His father was a U.S. representative who served Tennessee's 2nd District from 1951 until his death in 1964, when Baker's stepmother, Irene Bailey Baker, served out his last term.
Baker's first run for the Senate was in 1964, to fill the unexpired term of Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver, who died in office.
Baker ran a conservative campaign, promising to limit foreign aid and federal interference in local education and civil rights. He lost to a more liberal candidate.
Two years later, he ran again, this time taking more moderate positions -- supporting, among other policies, fair-housing laws. He won with nearly 56 percent, cutting into the traditional Democratic bloc and winning an unprecedented 35 percent of the black vote. He became the first Republican popularly elected to the Senate from Tennessee.
Baker was described as a liberal on environmental issues (he helped draft anti-strip-mining legislation), a moderate on civil rights (he backed landmark voting rights legislation but opposed busing to achieve racial balance in schools, calling it "a grievous piece of mischief") and a hawk on foreign policy (he voted against SALT II, an arms reduction treaty with the Soviets, but he supported the Panama Canal treaty that ceded control of the waterway to Panama).
Not only was Baker from a prominent political family, but both of his wives had impeccable Republican pedigrees.
In 1951, he married Joy Dirksen, daughter of Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. The couple, who had met at the wedding of a mutual friend, had two children, Darek and Cynthia, known as Cissy.
Joy Baker was hospitalized for problems with alcohol in the 1970s and stopped drinking in 1975. She attributed her problems to the strains of a political life. She died in 1993 after a 10-year battle with cancer.
Three years later, in a match that surprised and delighted their friends, Baker married former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. They had known each other since 1978.
Baker capped his career in 2001 when he was named ambassador to Japan. He served until 2005.
Besides his wife and children, Baker is survived by four grandchildren.
Senator, ambassador, chief of staff dies after stroke