The Eloquent Listener

We have a lot of fast talkers, sweet talkers and trash talkers. We have few eloquent listeners.

"Eloquent” isn’t a word often used to modify “listener.” However, it is what the late Howard Baker, Jr., in the twilight of his life, described as his best virtue.

Eloquent listening isn’t about hearing what you want to hear or agreeing with everything that you do hear. Eloquent listening is all about hearing without malice.

Baker’s passage last week puts another punctuation mark on the apparently bygone era of conciliation. We no longer celebrate men who, in the words of Baker’s stepmother, resemble the Tennessee River, flowing exactly down the middle of the state.

Eulogies recalled Baker’s famous question that summed up the country’s curiosity about Watergate — “What did the President know and when did he know it?" He was celebrated for his efforts as chief of staff under President Reagan for navigating the Iran-Contra scandal.

Fewer people remembered that he helped draft the Clean Air Act, supported voting rights and fair housing legislation and agreed to return the Panama Canal to Panama. Or that he was one of the founding members of the Bipartisan Policy Center that seeks consensus approaches to major issues.

Hardly anyone took time to remember that it was Baker, despite enormous pressure from the Nixon White House, who worked faithfully and fairly with Senator Sam Ervin to ferret out the truth about Watergate on a committee that some call the last bipartisan investigation Congress has conducted.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell praised Baker as “one of the Senate’s most towering figures,” but in today’s Senate, Baker may be hooted to the sidelines by conservatives who think compromise is a four-letter word and bipartisanship is an act of treason.

Listening is no longer considered a great political asset, especially at a time when talking heads dominate political conversation. But Baker proved the value of listening over and over in his time in the Senate, as both minority and majority leader, and later serving in the White House and as ambassador to Japan.

Without listening, there can be no learning. Why listen if you are convinced you are right and everyone else is wrong? Baker had the ability and instinct to see the world in shades other than black and white.

He was born in a part of Tennessee that resisted secession during the Civil War. His grandfather was a judge and his grandmother was a sheriff. Baker initially studied electrical engineering, but his championship debate experiences in elementary school persuaded him to switch to the law. He married into Republican royalty to the daughter of another man known for his political moderacy.

Baker lost his first election, but won a seat in the Senate espousing more centrist views, becoming the first Republican to win a Senate election in Tennessee since the end of reconstruction.

Before his death, Baker was asked to name his greatest accomplishment. He quickly pointed to a 125,000-acre national park that protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.

Despite all the achievements and disappointments of a high-profile political life, it is telling Baker identified his listening skills as his distinguishing mark, as what made him successful.

“I increasingly believe that the essence of leadership, the essence of good Senate service, is the ability to be an eloquent listener, to hear and understand what your colleagues have to say, what your party has to say, what the country has to say … and try to translate that into effective policy,” Baker said in a 2011 interview with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say. You don’t have to agree, but you have to hear what they’ve got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you’ll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership.”

Not surprisingly, Baker’s interview wasn’t picked up by Fox News.

This post originally appeared on Gary Conkling's personal blog, Life Notes