Retiring Senate Majority Leader Howard Henry Baker Jr., 59, the Republican from Tennessee, left the Senate and its majority leadership voluntarily this month -- not to retire, but to prepare to run for president in 1988. He'll do that from an office in the Washington branch of the Texas law firm, Vincent & Elkins, where, reportedly, he will earn as much as $800,000 a year. Politics came naturally to him; his father had served in the House from 1951 to 1964, and his mother served out her husband's last term after Howard Baker Sr. died in office. Baker became a member of another politically prominent family in 1951 when he married Joy Dirksen, the daughter of Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.). The young Baker was a successful trial lawyer and businessman in Republican east Tennssee. He broke the state's Democratic tradition by winning a Senate seat on his second try in 1966. Baker's Senate career had been unremarkable when, in 1973, he was named the ranking Republican on the Senate's select committee to investigate the Watergate affair. The committee's televised hearings turned him into a national figure, remembered for his oft-repeated question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" In 1977 Baker was elected minority leader, becoming majority leader when Republicans won control of the Senate in 1980. Baker tried running for president in 1980. He hired a staff and rented offices, but got nowhere, withdrawing after a dismal finish in the New Hampshire primary. But he's never lost the bug, and has a disarming ability to talk quite freely about his presidential ambition. Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor of The Washington Post.

Q: I'm intrigued by the personality traits and characteristics required to even consider yourself a potenial president of the United States.

A: The president is the temporary occupant of a position of heavy responsibility. His every action is observed, restrained, modified or retarded by a whole network and complex of competing constitutional forces. Presidents do very well or very poorly, but they seldom fail (and) they're seldom idolized.

But presidents are people. Presidents have been brilliant, and they are sometimes not successful. Presidents have been mediocre and they are giants. I haven't the slightest doubt that youcould be president. I haven't the slightest doubt that I could be president. The one thing that I would not be willing to do is to have the absolute unrestrained power that exists in some other countries. That would terrify me. My father [Howard H. Baker, Republican congressman from Tennessee from 1951 to 1964], when he went to Congress many, many years ago was agonizing over his first important vote and he went to the Speaker [Sam Rayburn] and said, "What do you think, Mr. Sam?" And [Rayburn] said, "Howard, remember, it takes an awful lot of effort to injure this Republic."

It takes an awful lot of an effort by a president to really be a bad president. [The] institution is so hedged in with constitutional restraints and so plural in its concept that any man of good conscience, good judgment, decency and honesty, who has reasonable intelligence, if he is dedicated to his country, can be president.

Q: I was thinking about it in a completely different way. The abdication of personal life, living in terror that you can't have that second drink or that third glass of wine because you may have to declare war in 10 minutes. Throwing away the private self to become the king and the public figure.

A: The only time I had any real concern about that since I was a young man was when Reagan came down to open the World's Fair in Knoxville and stayed with us in our home. For days the Secret Service was preparing our guest house for him. It's incredible. They put in 50- odd telephone lines. They put in a decoding machine, direct lines to the airport, hospital, police department, the Washington switchboard, any number of back-up lines, and he was just going to be there one night.

I took it in stride until we brought him home from the opening of the World's Fair. This little guest house is built on a bluff that overlooks a river canyon. That view is my pride and joy because it's absolutely undisturbed. Only trees and mountains and the river below. No power lines. No roads. No houses. Nothing.

I could hardly wait to pull the blinds up and show the president his peace and tranquility. I tried; the Secret Service had nailed 'em shut. And I thought, I'm not sure this is worth this. This man is captured. But he redeemed my confidence because he ordered the Secret Service to un-nail them and I thought, he hasn't lost all his power.

Q: The presumption that you have to have an enormous ego and an enormous ambition and self-regard [to become president] is wrong?

A: Absolutely. Incidentally, I'm maybe the most surprised man in the country about Ronald Reagan. I never had a very high opinion of Reagan. I came away from four years of service with an extraordinary high regard for him. He is truly presidential. You can disagree with him if you want, but I don't know anybody that says he is less than presidential. If you define presidential as a man who is confident of himself on the job, who will listen and take advice and who can make decisions and make them stick. I've seen it many, many times in the Oval Office when some of us or his official family go at it hammer and tongs. He sits there and listens, fidgets and tells stories. But at some point he makes a decision. And it's almost always a good decision. Sometimes I don't think it's the right decision, but it's a good decision. And the presidential quality is apparent because everybody just falls in line and marches right along behind.

Q: Do you see yourself performing similarly?

A: No. Everybody reinvents the role of a jury leader, and I suspect everybody reinvents the presidential role.

Q: If this works out and you get to go the distance at least to the convention, and maybe beyond, you're going to spend something like $100 million over the next four years.

A: God, I hope not. Don't say that. Help!

Q: Can you contemplate with some equanimity going through the primary system if it doesn't change?

A: Sure. I can contemplate. It's two years of hard work and four years of detailed planning, but I'm not put off. I can still remember those cold mornings and motels barely worthy of the name in some areas. But it's still worth it. You've got to like people. If you get a little exhilaration from give and take, it helps compensate.

Q: You must have thought about the qualities that make it possible to lubricate the Washington machinery on a personal level. What is that quality that makes people like a Howard Baker or a [White House chief of staff, now Treasury Secretary-designate] Jim Baker as opposed to those who can't leave town under anything but a smelly cloud?

A: I wouldn't be good at it if I tried to figure it out. I am what I am and I think tzat's the essence of politics, successful or otherwise. You'd better not try to be something you aren't. People sense that and politicians sense it more than most anybody. Television can spot a phony a mile away. But a politician can spot a phony usually a hundred miles away.

I never tried to be anything except what I was. I never tried to be Lyndon Johnson. I even made some conscious effort to deny that I would try to be an Everett Dirksen [the late Senate minority leader from 1959 to 1969 whose daughter, Joy, Baker married in 1951.] If I had any studied plan at all it was to be Howard Baker.

Q: What about this extraordinary coincidence, the son-in-law following in the footsteps. How important was that in your life?

A: Second only to my father, Ev Dirksen had a bigger impact on my life than any other man. I virtually idolized him. I admired him. I was reverent, almost, in my respect for him, in my appreciation of his political talents. But some way or other I escaped being captured by him, in that I never tried to follow him as a political role figure. It's even more of a miracle that I escaped being captured by my father's political career, which was almost as extensive as Dirksen's although not as prominent. I grew up in the shadow of a very strong man. And a very strong mother.

Q: What would you like to be remembered for in your Senate career?

A: Clearly my service as majority leader. It had to be reinvented as far as Republicans are concerned. We'd been out so long that nobody in my caucus had ever served in a majority before.

Q: You've talked a lot about making the congressional service a little less of a full-time career. How badly out of touch do you think this community has become?

A: Every city is insular to a degree. New York, perhaps, more than Washington and Dallas less.

Q: All of us -- even the "underpaid" senator -- are earning salaries that a lot of your constituents would consider regal.

A: You think that the comparative prosperity of the inner circle in Washington isolates us? Less perhaps than the emormous prosperity of the inner circle in Hollywood or Wall Street. Washington is a poor relative compared to those two places or to some of the great fortunes in the Southwest. I'm not concerned about that, I'm concerned about the poverty that surrounds this city. I wonder about the future of this city as the seat of government, although Washington's a lot better city now than it was when I came here. Certainly better than that terrible day when I left the of fice at 2:30 in the afternoon and saw the downtown section of the city burning up. It was on April 5, 1968. It was my son's 15th birthday. I went home early and I sent the staff home early for fear of what was going on. Got home and Joy said, "Darek's birthday party is tonight and you've got to go get his birthday cake." I braved the curfew by a few minutes and went up Wisconsin Avenue to get his cake and it was just like that movie, "On the Beach," when the submarine surfaces in a deserted San Francisco. There wasn't a soul. I came back to the street I lived on and saw military trucks with soldiers in the back, traveling down my little street.

The next day, I saw soldiers behind sandbags on the first floor of the Rotunda of the Capitol and I thought, this place is going to come unraveled. I wondered whether or not the federal government could continue to locate in Washington under those circumstances.

Q: I asked a couple of our Watergate experts, what do we really know about Baker and Nixon? I was told that the only thing we really know is what Dean revealed: he let it be known, I was told, that you and Nixon had had private meetings before those [Senate Watergate] hearings [of which Baker was the vice- chairman] began. A lot of people were very suspicious of you.

A: You've understated the case! I never laid eyes on John Dean until he testified, which may seem odd but I wasn't at the White House that much. I was a fairly young senator. As the senior Republican on that [Senate Watergate] committee I thought the first thing I've got to do is go talk to Richard Nixon and tell him: I have seconded your nomination for president. I am your friend, and I want you to know that I want to hear what your administration has to offer and say in its own defense. And I will see that it gets presented.

At that time I was convinced that Nixon was innocent, that he knew nothing about this. I was convinced that it was a political hatchet job to try to undo an administration that I had helped elect.

By his attitude and demeanor at that short unsubstantive meeting, I began [to have] first inklings that something was not as I thought. That was the only meeting I ever had with him. I never made any arrangements with Nixon. It wasn't until maybe weeks later that that little nagging concern that stemmed from Nixon's attitude and a few things he said began to grow. I've never understood why Dean thought I was trying to do something for Nixon. I never did that.

Q: What was your view of Nixon as a personality?

A: He's a difficult personality, ill at ease -- I suspect even with himself -- but in any conversation I ever had with him, he was absolutely brilliant. I met with him the other day in New York and talked about arms control. I was flabbergasted by his grasp of the issue and the clarity of his statements. He must be this country's leading expert on that field both conceptually and in terms of detail.

Q: The Panama Canal, another interesting episode in our recent history. [Baker supported it, against the wishes of his party's right-wing]

A: I'd do it again. I'm convinced had we not done that, our travail in El Salvador and Nicaragua and perhaps in Panama itself, would have been far worse. I had a poll done in my own state and knew full well that it was going to be a terrible. I was aware of the fact that I had to run for reelection immediately after that. But I did it, and it was a difficult, unpleasant, tedious job. I've still got scars and bruises about my head and shoulders to prove it.

A: Is it possible that that episode labeled you in a way that the right wing of the party is never going to accept you?

A: I don't think the right wing of the Republican Party is that unreasoning. They're some in the right wing of the Republican Party who'll never forgive me, just like there are a number who'll never forgive me for my support of the fair-housing bill. There are people in Memphis who will not speak to me to this day because of my vote on that bill. But those things tend to take their rightful place. I don't think the Panama Canal issue would be of fundamental importance in a possible race for political office, say, in '88. I don't think the real thinking conservatives -- Ronald Reagan, or Jesse Helms, or Paul Laxalt -- are that way.

Q: I could make a case that those people love Howard Baker and love having him around and hope he'll always be on their team, but ain't going to be for him for president.

A: The one thing you can be sure of in presidential politics is if you try to handicap the next race on the basis of the last race you'll always be wrong. Running for president is like running for the city council. It's retail politics, not wholesale politics, not TV politics. Running for president now is the business of getting the delegates to caucuses, to conventions and getting the votes in wards and precincts and districts. And get that early enough to become the frontrunner or near the frontrunner.

Q: How did it feel when your daughter, Cissy, decided to run for Congress in 1982? [She lost badly.]

A: I don't think I ever said a word. I'm not aware of ever having done anything to encourage her to run.

But when she decided to run I was pleased.

Q: Bakers from Tennesee aren't used to losing, though.

A: Well, this Baker lost the first race he ran. My father lost twice before he won. The Baker tradition is you have to do it once to find out what it's all about.