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THOMPSON: Remembering NY Times columnist Russell Baker

January 28, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Like many whose appreciation of a well-turned phrase knows no end, I was saddened to hear that Russell Baker had reached his end - at age 93 - last week at his home in Leesburg, VA. Baker was one of a handful of journalists - Jack Anderson, Art Buchwald, Herb Caen and Mike Royko - that I read from the 1960s until their words ceased. Baker was the last to pass.

Baker and the others not only influenced my writing…they influenced my life. So, it is with true deference that I offer today’s column. It is a tribute to someone that I hope - if you aren’t familiar - will spur you on to seek his words.

Baker won two Pulitzer Prizes - one for his “Observer” columns in 1979 and one for his autobiography, “Growing Up” - and countless other accolades from organizations and institutions who value the written word.

I saw Baker in Washington, D.C. several times in the mid-1970s, but never met him until I was introduced in 1980 during one of many visits to the former offices of The New York Times on West 43rd Street.

Baker was soft-spoken, almost shy, but never at a loss for words. “You’re not like most the other PR men,” he volunteered with a glint when we were introduced. “I understand our reporters and editors can find you as easily as you find us.” He was as quick in person as he was on the pages he wrote.

When I told him how much I liked his columns and actually recalled a couple, however, he almost look embarrassed. Like so many great writers, he was more comfortable sitting at a keyboard writing than conversing about his writing.

I’ve probably read a few million of Baker’s words…thousands of columns…scores of essays and books. There was never a lack of humour. He used a well-seasoned Southern style of good-natured humour to carry words that satirized and had relevance on a wide range of social and political matters.

When Baker was in Washington, D.C., his writing almost invariably had a political tone, but when he moved to New York City he wrote on broader topics…leaving virtually nothing in American culture untouched over the years.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1993 file photo, writer Russell Baker, ponders a reporter's question during a New York news conference where he was presented as the successor to host Alistair Cooke for the PBS series
FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1993 file photo, writer Russell Baker, ponders a reporter's question during a New York news conference where he was presented as the successor to host Alistair Cooke for the PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre." Pulitzer Prize-winning author and humorist Baker died at age 93.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

The tone and style of his writing morphed from pointed satire and poking the various bears that lived and worked in the nation’s capital to what was nothing less than literature. Readers knew that what they were consuming was special…something you could come across years later and still say, “This is so true.”

Baker’s ability to - as he called it -  do “ballet in a telephone booth” changed people. Initially, three times a week and later twice a week…and then just once a week, his 700 or 800 words pierced conventional thinking and action. Every one of us who wrote for a living…great and small…knew we were witnessing genius. Genius is easily recognized…those who are so endowed make it look so easy…that’s what Baker did.

There are, of course, too many columns to reveal them here. Baker’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek parody of fellow Times writer and food critic Craig Claiborne’s column on a French chef’s elaborate 31-course meal was one of thousands that resonated with most Americans. Simply titled “Francs and Beans,” Baker described his Diet Pepsi from 1975 - no doubt a good year - thusly: “Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tin cans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood’s curiosity.”

Like almost every thing I ever read of Baker, I wished I had written it or said it. That, of course, is the real charm of a gifted writer…a genius…you are driven to ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Baker’s charm flowed from the pages he wrote, and I believe his upbringing in rural Virginia had much to do with his understated, soft-spoken eloquence. He was a well-dressed observer of American life by the time I met him, but in earlier days he resembled a young Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart…low key until his passion was awakened. Physically he was lean…his blue eyes and Southern accent were notable…he was the polar opposite of pretentiousness.

You can read some of Baker’s columns in books that you’ll never be sorry you bought.  “No Cause for Panic” (1964), “Baker’s Dozen” (1964), “All Things Considered” (1965) and “Poor Russell’s Almanac” (1972), “So This Is Depravity” (1980) and “The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams” (1983). Then, pick up “Growing up.”

Even though he is gone, his words remain with us…and trust me…the writings of this latter day Mark Twain will both entertain you and make you wiser. Seek his words and enjoy. And now I can say what he never accepted easily face-to-face: "Thank you, Russell...thank you so very much."

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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