Russell Baker: Wit and whimsy, all on deadline
As fate would have it, word of Russell Baker’s death came the same day as a Manhattan screening of a new HBO documentary, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.” Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were archetypes of a New York brand of columnizing that they all but invented more than half a century ago. They came at writing with chins out and fists clenched, crafting sentences taut and devastating.
Baker, 93 when he died, was a deadline artist, too. But he approached the world at a 45-degree angle, tending toward whimsy and japery in some 5,000 “Observer” columns that he wrote for the New York Times across 36 years. His approach was no less shattering than that of the New York brawlers. He punctured those who were pretentious, satirized that which was foolish, lamented what was distressing and pondered the endless inanities of daily life. He did it three times a week for much of his career, in 750-word offerings graced with the effortlessness of a Ted Williams swing.
Like Breslin and Hamill, Baker grew up poor, in his case in rural Virginia. An impoverished childhood may not be indispensable to becoming a great columnist, but it sure doesn’t seem to hurt. In their heyday, Hamill and Breslin were widely imitated by bigcity newspaper writers everywhere. Baker not so much. Maybe that’s because copying a Swiftian sensibility doesn’t come easily. I know, because I tried in my own years as a city col- umnist. Russell Baker was my ideal. But I never amounted to more than Beatlemania to his Beatles. Face it, you can’t match an original.
His reflections on journalism remain as valid as ever – these days, more valid than ever. In a memoir, he despaired of the life of a young reporter, sitting outside a closed Senate meeting and “waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.” Yet he also appreciated the importance of showing up and hanging in there. He told of an afternoon in Washington when he was walking to the Times’ offices with the paper’s bureau chief, James Reston. They heard a car crash not far away. Let’s take a look, “Scotty” Reston said. Why bother? Baker replied. Because, his boss said, you never know; a Cabinet secretary might be in the car.
And in an anythinggoes era, he knew that life and writing must both have limitations. “The problem with having no taboos is that it encourages second-rate work,” he told The Hartford Courant in 1994, adding, “When you’re working up against taboos, when you’re playing very close to the edge, you tend to write better.”
Breslin, who died in 2017, is hard-pressed in the HBO documentary to think of a bad column that he’d ever written. Baker knew instinctively that life is never so kind.
Max Frankel, a former Times executive editor who earlier was in charge of the Sunday sections, tells of having persuaded him to write a column for the Sunday magazine in addition to his work for the daily paper. I want Baker’s best, the editor insisted. Well, the columnist said, if you want the best of me you’ll also have to also print the worst.
He understood the sad reality for any regular columnist: Some days you just don’t have it. Even with a Ted Williams swing, the best hitters, the absolute best, fail roughly two of every three times. Russell Baker’s batting average was a lot higher than that, for sure. A hell of a lot higher.