Decay and fall of a columnist

Russell Baker

April 03, 1991|By Russell Baker

MY FIRST impulse was to interview my wife about the awful situation in Iraq. Fortunately she was in no mood for it. She had lost her great recipe for borscht and, what's more, had just discovered that her fantastic Japanese camera was broken.

"Look on the bright side," I said. "It proves the Japanese, too, can make things that don't work." No dice. She was, if not inconsolable, certainly un-interviewable. I was tempted to make a speech denouncing people who don't worry about the right things.

Rhetorically, I would ask her crushing questions: "What kind of person sulks about borscht and cameras when 12-year-old girls in New York are having babies before breakfast and dropping them down garbage chutes on the way to school? When schoolteachers are being fired by the truckload because voters prefer ignorance to taxes? When the country is turning into a congeries of feuding, selfish, hate-filled, fearful tribes?"

I didn't make this speech because (1) speaking candidly about life in America is considered bad taste nowadays, and (2) I was uncertain how to pronounce "congeries," a word I know only from reading the most learned newspaper columnists.

You know those columnists. They write things like: "The Gordian knot that is the modern Middle East has its roots in the decay of the Ottoman Empire."

They don't bother explaining what the Ottoman Empire is, or what a Gordian knot is. Imagine, a knot with roots!

They bully you with history and classical myth and unpronounceable vocabulary: "congeries."

How do I know this? Because I once tried to be such a columnist myself: a vital shaper of history, quick to drop classical metaphors, flattering itinerant secretaries of state as Jasons seeking the golden fleece of peace, freely dropping words like "congeries."

No more. My columnizing candle now burns so low that but for a lost recipe and a broken camera, I might have shamelessly interviewed my wife today. Not that she is unfit to discuss Iraq. She would surely speak more common sense on the subject than President Bush, as would anybody not hopelessly marinated in diplomatic philosophy.

I mean, after fighting to get the Nazis out of France, Poland, Africa, Russia and so on, would he have decided it was sound policy to let Hitler continue killing his own people rather than interfere in Germany's internal affairs?

Yes, yes, this is a dumb, innocent, civilian view of the Ottoman roots of the Gordian knot that is the Middle East. The policy makes no sense because the Gordian knot itself makes no sense, just as the Ottoman Empire made no sense.

When dealing with a no-sense place you need a no-sense policy. People who can't pronounce "congeries" can't expect to grasp these subtleties and should leave them to the experts.

Fortunately I can do so, thanks to my wife's interview resistance. More importantly, her resistance has saved me from taking another step down a very bleak road, because it is a well-known fact that when a columnist starts interviewing his wife he is approaching the end of the line.

Once hooked on interviewing his wife, degradation proceeds swiftly. He starts interviewing the dead: Caesar, Talleyrand, Hammurabi. Soon he'll start writing columns about his dog. Then columns about his diseases.

His blood pressure or gastric ulcer, which he was once content to mention only parenthetically in denunciations of slackers and bad sports and eulogies on the death of the Republican Party, now occupy entire columns.

("The threat of death by high blood pressure makes a man think long, long thoughts . . .")

The typical columnist's downhill journey begins fairly early. The first step is taken when he writes a word he can't pronounce. "Congeries," perhaps. Next he becomes his own favorite authoritative source, writing: "As I stated in three earlier columns . . ." Soon he is referring to newsy people by first names. "While lunching with Zsa Zsa, I asked why . . ."

Thus the columnist's destiny. Luckily, a recipe was lost today. Luckily, I am dogless. Which leaves only . . . Oh my . . . dry, flaky scalp?

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