By Garry Clifford
April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

When Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker announced his support for the Panama Canal treaties last January, it was a shrewdly calculated roll of the dice. He risked drawing fire both from his God-and-country constituents in Tennessee, where he faces reelection this fall, and from conservative fellow Republicans. But Baker had played to long odds before. Just last year he decided to challenge GOP Whip Robert Griffin of Michigan for the Minority Leader’s job and defeated him by only one vote. “I sat there thinking, ‘You’re nothing but a riverboat gambler,’ ” he said afterward with a Cheshire-cat grin. His position on the canal was an unmistakable signal that he is playing for higher stakes now. The first treaty’s defeat would have cost him dearly in the Senate and the party. But its narrow victory certified him as a potential healer of the chronically divided GOP—and very possibly its best hope for President in 1980.

For the moment, Baker refuses to speak of himself as a prospect. “Not now,” he says. “It would get in the way of my leadership role, and nobody can see that far. Who knows what it will be like in 1979?” But aides are bullish about his chances, and the signs of nascent candidacy surround him: in his faithful attendance at party fund raisers all over the U.S., in his high-profile criticism of President Carter and in his private meetings with the princes and angels of his party. Archconservative party comrades warned Baker that endorsing the canal treaties would deny him the nomination in 1980. But polls in Tennessee convinced him, he says, that the public would support the treaties with certain amendments. His deft engineering of the compromise has given even right-wing colleagues reason to admire his effectiveness. “The canal issue has hurt him,” says Reaganite Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada. “But I happen to think it took courage. And as Minority Leader he’s been able to unite very independent Republicans. I give him credit for that.”

Mending fences between the party’s implacably ideological right and its Northern-urban center-to-left has always been a task for a consummate political acrobat. “Howard’s got a campaign philosophy,” says an ally in the Tennessee GOP. “He doesn’t make waves—he rides them.” If that means he is called fuzzy on the issues (and it often does), that bothers him not at all—no more, in fact, than it bothered another ideologically elusive Southerner with a toothy grin and an eye on the White House in 1976. “I’m glad you can’t put a label on me,” Baker says. “There is value in judging issues on their merit instead of responding to theological political tendencies.” But Baker is unmistakably Republican—an outspoken advocate of big business and beefy defense budgets whoop-” poses government spending on welfare and job programs. (On civil rights, he is moderate to liberal.) Some say I Baker is a party man to a fault. As vice-chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, he was accused of working hand in glove with the Nixon White House. “He was against us the whole time,” says one former committee staffer. “He was determined to stick Watergate and the cover-up on the CIA.”

Baker denies that, but even some GOP senators wonder whether his sanguine nonideology is compatible with the adrenal sense of purpose required of a presidential candidate. “He’s got it all—he can go as far as he wants,” says a close friend in Washington. “But I sometimes think Howard would rather be back home in Huntsville doing nothing.”

Baker was born in the small east Tennessee town 52 years ago. Most of its residents are farmers and miners, but “the place is built around the Bakers,” says a neighbor. “It’s like a feudal setting, and Howard was raised very much the lord of the manor.” His mother died when Howard was 8, and he and his two sisters were brought up by their grandmother. “As a young boy, politics was not one of my ambitions,” he admits; his childhood is more vividly remembered for the time he dynamited the family’s ancestral outhouse. After three years in college and service in the World War II Navy, he enrolled in law school on a last-minute impulse. “I was going to finish my senior year at the University of Tennessee as an electrical engineer,” he says, “but I stood in the registration line all day long and never got in. Driving home, I passed the college of law. I noticed the door was open, the light was on, and there was no line. That’s how I went to law school. I’m mildly embarrassed by that story, but it’s true.”

After graduation he joined his father’s law firm in Knoxville. In 1950 Baker Sr. was elected to Congress. Nearly two years later Howard married Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen’s daughter Joy—after a courtship foreshadowing his skills as a peacemaker. They met as Joy was sitting in a car with his younger sister Mary, who was smoking a cigar on a dare. “He dragged Mary out of the car,” Joy recalls, “and told me I was a very corruptive influence. Then he pushed me into a rosebush, and I got scratches all over me.” A few days later he called to ask if he could come over and apologize, and she agreed. “In the first 25 minutes he apologized and proposed,” she remembers, “and I accepted.”

When Baker’s father died in 1964, both Joy and Dirksen tried to dissuade Howard from declaring for the Senate seat previously held by the late Estes Kefauver. When he ran anyway—and lost—she tried again to divert him from politics. “I don’t like defeat, and I didn’t ever want to feel it again,” she explains. She needn’t have worried. Two years later Baker became the first popularly elected Republican senator in Tennessee history.

Baker prospered in the Senate from the beginning, but Joy, suffering the isolation of the political wife, turned increasingly to liquor for escape. The problem was compounded, she says, by her father’s death in 1969. “I thought he was indestructible,” she recalls sadly. “I thought he was here to stay.” Baker was defeated that year in his first try for a Senate leadership position, and his prospects appeared to be fading. But in 1973 he was appointed to the Watergate Committee and emerged as a potential running mate for President Ford in 1976. Then, just before Ford made his choice, news of Joy’s drinking problem was made public. “Every day of my life,” says Mrs. Baker, “I wonder whether that cost Howard the nomination.” (Some observers feel that with Baker on the ticket, the Republicans might well have beaten fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter.)

Since then life has been less trying for both of them. Joy took her last drink more than two years ago and trimmed off 40 pounds. Now that son Darek, 24, and daughter Cissy, 21, are grown, she has begun to flourish in the role of Washington wife, serving on the boards of both the Kennedy Center and the Dirksen Library and Research Center in Pekin, Ill. And if Baker runs for President? “I want anything he wants,” she says. “I’m smart enough to know who the breadwinner in this family is, and if he does run I’ll go out and work off my shoestrings to help him.”

But such commitments are still premature. First Baker must help shepherd the second Panama Canal treaty through the Senate, then win reelection (which at this point seems assured). “Baker’s been a good Minority Leader,” presidential hopeful Bob Dole concedes, “but so far he’s had all the easy ones. This year will be the test.” Anti-treaty conservatives may not forget their vow of retribution, and the road to the nomination will be pitted with hazards. In the end, however, Baker’s amiable flexibility may carry the day. “He’s right in the middle,” says admiring Democrat Fate Thomas, a Davidson County sheriff in Nashville. “I got a fried rabbit dinner comin’ up. Tons of rabbits and lots of Democrats. But Howard’s already called and said he’s comin’ too. That Howard, he’s a real vote getter!”