Howard Baker and Mike Pence spoke truth to power and defended the U.S. Constitution

Published 2:23 pm Friday, June 24, 2022

The late Sen. Howard Baker knew President Nixon was wrong during Watergate. Former Vice President Mike Pence knew President Trump was wrong on Jan. 6.
The Jan. 6 drama has taken on a familiar look. The prequel played in prime time almost 50 years ago. The names are different, for the most part, and the storyline is a riot rather than a break-in. But the underlying theme remains the abuse of executive power and the ability of individuals and institutions to resist this abuse.
President Nixon and then President Trump pushed against Constitutional limits. These limits are not self-enforcing. They depend on people in key positions understanding and appreciating their duty to transcend short-term personal or partisan advantage for the greater good.
The late Tennessee U.S. Sen. Howard Baker framed the responsible response to a president of his own party, during Watergate: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Following overwhelming evidence that the president had acted outside of his authority, Baker and other leading Republicans let President Nixon know they could no longer support him. The president resigned. A constitutional crisis was averted — for half a century.
Senator Baker and others spoke truth to Richard Nixon’s power. Vice President Pence did the same to Donald Trump. These may seem to be disconnected events. They’re not.
Longtime Republican attorney, Baker’s chief legislative assistant, and former Ambassador to Australia, AB Culvahouse represents a common thread over the 50 years.
He sat behind Senator Baker at Watergate and again behind the attorney testifying in support of Vice President Pence at the January 6 hearings.
Culvahouse kept alive the legacy of Senator Baker through commitment to a fundamental thread in the tattered fabric of American politics — commitment to the set of core constitutional values that transcends the passion of the moment. It’s the thread of principle that restrains power.
Despite relentless pressure from the most powerful person in the country, Pence did the right thing. He refused to give in to the clearly unconstitutional path advanced by one attorney in the self-service of ingratiating himself to the president.
It is a lot easier to talk about speaking truth to power than to do it. If the stakes were lower it’s not hard to imagine, even expect, a vice president’s giving in to the will of the boss.
But this disagreement was about the Constitution, which Pence and his attorneys knew, didn’t permit a vice president to determine the outcome of a presidential election. Doing so would be contrary to the Twelfth Amendment and the Election Counting Act.
The president asked Pence to accept “alternative” results from seven states — or, failing that, suspend the count while states somehow reconsidered and submitted new totals showing Trump the winner.
The vice president merely announces the Electoral College results. There is no way under the Constitution for Pence to have done the president’s bidding.
The hearings revealed much about the American constitutional system that not enough of us appreciate or understand. It not only provides a framework for decision making. It also provides a framework for governing that diffuses power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The Constitution also divides power between the federal government and the states and calls for the president to be chosen through the Electoral College. Responsibility, like power, is diffused. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, refused to bend to Trump’s pressure to undercut the legitimate Georgia count.
A constitutional crisis was once again avoided. Culvahouse took the handoff at Watergate and helped pass the baton. But one wonders if future generations will fully grasp the meaning of restrained power in the face of heightened political emotion.
The Founders understood the need to constrain the exercise of power in the service of, and often in the exploitation of popular passions. That wisdom requires an institutionalized handoff between political generations.
We’re spending a lot of time arguing about what goes on in the classroom. Let’s not underestimate the vital importance of civic education. Pay it forward.
(William Lyons is Director of Policy Partnerships for the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. He also served as Chief Policy Officer for Knoxville Mayors Bill Haslam, Daniel Brown and Madeline Rogero.)

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