Paul Greenberg

The news that Howard Baker had passed at the age of 88 set off a kaleidoscopic swirl of memories, impressions, recollections and reflections -- so many it was surprising, for he was not a particularly memorable politician, and certainly not a colorful one.

On the contrary, Howard Baker's great strength was an ability to meld into the background, to mediate between the political stars of his time, to serve rather than lead, to be the gray between black and white opposites, always the man in the middle, the one in the background when a president signs a bill into law, the chief of staff and not the chief executive.

Howard Baker was the great compromiser, conciliator and facilitator -- never the leader. He was everybody's No. 2 choice, the ideal vice president, but nobody's favorite for No. 1. Not even his own. Even when he ran for president, he didn't seem all that enthusiastic about his own candidacy. He shied away from the immodesty of it. As he once told the rival candidates at a forum, "I don't know about the rest of you people, but one of the requirements of running for president apparently is that you incinerate any remnant of modesty that's left in your body."

Winston Churchill, who was never in the middle on any question, once described his rival Clement Attlee as "a modest man with much to be modest about." Howard Baker was a moderate with much to be moderate about, which was his great strength at a time when immoderate passions held sway. His talent for genuine moderation -- not the sort that is simply the absence of principle -- was as useful in politics as it still is rare.

Howard Baker's great virtue was that he was no zealot. His great vice may have been that he had no zeal, either -- and it is hard if not impossible to recall any great political leader who didn't have that quality, who didn't have what George H.W. Bush once called "the vision thing," a construction that only someone without it would use to describe the indispensable quality a great leader must have.

Sen. Baker was great at what he was -- a skilled politician who had a gift for moderating the too-bold views of others. But no one would have confused him with the star of the show, however great he might be in a supporting role. His specialty was to step in for the star at that critical moment when the leading man's charisma had worn thin and he was in danger of losing his audience. That's when Howard Baker would save him from his own passions.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.