Howard Baker, Diana McLellan: Luminaries of a Lost Washington

Sen. Howard Baker in 1989; Diana McLellan with daughter Fiona Weeks in 2010.
U.S. Senate / Courtesy of Diana McLellan family
Sen. Howard Baker in 1989; Diana McLellan with daughter Fiona Weeks in 2010.

It’s likely that Diana McLellan, when she wrote the dishy, witty gossip column, “The Ear,” may have had occasion to mention Howard E. Baker, who was at various time United States Senator from Tennessee, House Minority and Majority Leader  and White House Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan. She surely shared a one-of-a kind quality with the esteemed Republican stalwart, once deemed “The Great Conciliator.”

In the overheated, combative atmosphere of “Our Town,” where tiny celebrities are often writ large and without shame and where to reach across to across the aisle would be to have your hand singed, there are few  people with McLellan’s breezy wit and intelligence and Baker’s calming ability to bring opposed political types together to make things work and get things done.

The other “Our Town,”  the one we remember, but perhaps not the one that is, lost both Baker and McLellan this week; Baker at 88 from complications from a stroke and McLellan to cancer.

HOWARD E. BAKER, 88

If achievement were all to a life story, you might not have to write an obituary. You could just put down the facts:

= Republican Senator from Tennessee (1967 to 1985).

= Senate Minority Leader (1977 to 1981).

= Senate Majority Leader (1985 to 1985).

= White House Chief of Staff for President Ronald Reagan (1987 to 1988).

= Founder (with Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, Tom Daschle and George Mitchell) of the Bipartisan Policy Center (2007).

= Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1984).

= Vice Chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee (1973 to 1974).

= Husband, father and family man.

And, not to forget, photographer of note.

Baker was—not to forget, either—a member of what writer Ira Shapiro called “The Last Great Senate” in his book of the same title, whose members included Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Joseph Muskie, Gaylord Nelson and Robert Dole, to name a few.

In the Watergate hearing, it was Baker who framed the issue for the members, with the famous comment,  “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Baker, while a stalwart and dependable conservative in the GOP ranks, was never a die-hard ideologue in any of the sense and examples we see today. He worked with Democrats, and often cast votes (on the Panama Canal issue, for instance) that did not serve him well politically within his own party, and in the service of his political ambitions, which included a brief run for the presidency.

He came from a state that had its own political giants in history from Andrew Jackson to Estes Kevauver.  He was not a table-pounder, but he had a persistent, and insistent authority and authenticity—the good, honest politician,  a giant rich in the respect of colleagues and presidents. When Baker spoke, his peers tended to listen in a time when the Senate was still a collegial place where its members, Democrats and Republicans, gathered together over lunch, at receptions and social gatherings. It was not a place full of dropped gauntlets and paralysis, a perception much in vogue today.

It was James Baker, Secretary of State under President Reagan, who dubbed him the “quintessential mediator.”  We don’t have any of those today.

DIANA MCLELLAN, 76

When it comes to McLellan, author, gossip columnist, blogger, poet, biographer, and just about the most enduringly fresh glass of water—spiked, possibly with something stronger—that you might ever run across, we don’t have many of those today, either.

British-born McLellan had also been, among other things, a dress designer and telephone operator. She worked at the long defunct but still nostalgically remembered Washington Star, where she began writing a gossip column, called “The Ear,” which was the best (and at first only ) real gossip column in town.

She wrote with great, zingy, bubbly zeal, often referred to the Washington Post as the O.P.—as in the "other paper." She had a lot to write about with people like Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy, the Kennedys in general, the Bradlees and others around. She was not always entirely accurate, but she did not as far as we can recall have a malicious bone in her body.  Which is not to say that she did not skewer and sometimes embarrass people, but she did her duty and damage with good cheer and humor so that, sometimes, her victims did not lie bleeding.

She took “The Ear” to the Post, when the Star was extinguished—and, then, to the Washington Times.  We would often run into her, and she was always gracious, funny, full of news, a little out of breath and telling tales not entirely out of school.

Later, she wrote for the Washingtonian—sometimes profiles of just plain folks or city oddities. We recall a touching and compelling tribute to the life and passing of a Capitol Hill waitress and single mother, which was done with such empathy, eye for detail and big heart that was far removed from "The Ear."

She also wrote a book called “The Girls," a gossipy, but also insightful multi-bio of movie personalities, often rumored to be ladies who loved ladies, like Greta Garbo.  A book that could have been merely sensational proved to be something a little better, written, as was everything by McLellan, with style and wit.

Finally, there was “Making Hay,” a thin, but rich poetry collection, whose contents flew like a fluttery, slightly wobbly, but sharp arrows straight to the heart of matters.

We can add this: no matter what might be going on with her, papers dying,  this and that of daily life, Diana McLellan was always a welcome sight, a beautiful noise, the lady with the coat of many colors. "This Ear" could talk, but she could also listen. 

All of us, I think, whoever had occasion to be around her, in our profession, miss her already and forever and a day.

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Sat, 25 Oct 2014 06:09:25 -0400

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