Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker dead at 88

Last Updated Jun 26, 2014 3:37 PM EDT

Former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, a Republican who served as Senate majority leader, White House chief of staff, and U.S. ambassador to Japan during his roughly five decades in public life, passed away on Thursday, his law firm announced in an email. He was 88 years old.

Baker died at his home as a result of complications from a stroke he suffered Saturday, according to his firm.

Baker first arrived at the Senate in 1967, and he was Senate minority leader during Jimmy Carter's presidency. When Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1981, bringing a Republican Senate majority with him, Baker became the chamber's majority leader. In 1987, he was tapped by Reagan to be the White House chief of staff.

Baker briefly ran for the presidency in his own right in 1980, but he dropped out shortly after being crowded out of the race by fellow Republicans Reagan and George H.W. Bush. After more than a decade largely out of the public eye, Baker was named the U.S. ambassador to Japan by former President George W. Bush in 2001.

The Tennessee Republican also played a key role in the Watergate investigation that eventually brought down former President Richard Nixon. As the vice chairman of the Senate committee probing the scandal, Baker's question -- "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" - became an enduring symbol of the allegations swirling around Nixon's White House.

Baker is survived by his wife, former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan.

Baker's uncanny ability to hammer out compromises between Democrats and Republicans during his time on Capitol Hill earned him the nickname the "great conciliator" from his colleagues. In remarks on the Senate floor on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., each praised Baker's legacy.

"Senator Baker was a true path-breaker," said McConnell. "He served as Tennessee's first popularly elected Republican senator since Reconstruction. He served as America's first Republican majority leader since the time of Eisenhower. And he served his nation with distinction as a member of the U.S. Navy, as chief of staff to President Reagan, and as our country's ambassador to Japan."

"Senator Baker truly earned his nickname - the great conciliator," McConnell added. "I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties."

"He was someone that could do everything," added Reid. "He was well-liked by Democrats, Republicans. He was a fine man...He enjoyed an illustrious career in public service and it was accomplished by his hard work."

Reid said Baker's spirit of compromise -- his willingness to "[work] things out" -- lives on in both of Tennessee's current Republican senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan also mourned Baker's passing, saying the news left her "deeply saddened."

"Ronnie and I always had the greatest respect for his dedication to public service and even though he had other plans for his future, we were both extremely grateful that he agreed to take over the role of White House Chief of Staff during a very challenging time in 1987," she recalled in a statement. "Howard was one of Ronnie's most valued advisors, his integrity and ability to create cooperation between the Congress and the White House was unparalleled. Most importantly, though, he was a good and trusted friend."