Rus­sell Baker: Wit and whimsy, all on dead­line

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - CLYDE HABER­MAN

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.

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