Tasty dishes for 30 years

Neil A. Grauer

July 16, 1992|By Neil A. Grauer

THIRTY YEARS ago today, Russell Baker gave up the dispiriting role of a Washington reporter for the New York Times, in which he found himself compelled to sit around waiting for officials "to come out and lie to me," and assumed what he thought would be the less confining, more comfortable mantle of thrice-weekly columnist.

He quickly discovered that column-writing was no picnic.

"Notified that I was now free to write three columns a week about almost any subject on Earth, I was exultant," Mr. Baker recalled a few years ago. "I was at last free to disgorge the entire content of my brain.

"Somewhere between the third and fourth weeks, having written fewer than a dozen columns, I made a terrifying discovery: I had now disgorged the entire content of my brain, yet another column was due at once. Worse, three more columns would be due the next week, and three more in the week after that, and in the week after that -- three more."

Like the carnivorous plant in "The Little Shop of Horrors," Mr. Baker's column has been demanding "Feed me!" for three decades now; and Mr. Baker, who earned his newspaper spurs on The Sun, miraculously has managed to provide it -- and us -- fTC with a stunning variety of tasty morsels.

As will most newspaper columnists, Mr. Baker quickly avers that writing a column is "one of the best jobs in the world." It is also one of the most relentlessly demanding occupations, requiring skills that many of the finest reporters do not possess. Often great reporters, rewarded for meritorious service with a column, turn out to be terrible columnists. They do not pass the "kaffeeklatsch test;" you wouldn't want to schmooze with them over a cup of coffee. Were Russell Baker to amble into your kitchen, however, you'd eagerly plug in the percolator.

How has Mr. Baker done it and what has he written about all these years?

He insists that he refuses to think about his column, consciously at least, until he absolutely has to sit down and write it. That is the way he avoids the crushing pressure to "work all the time," as columnist Ellen Goodman once wearily described her task.

Yet Mr. Baker's mental machinery is never really at rest, he admits. When faced with "that moment of ultimate desperation" when he simply must write his column, something that his mind "filed away when it should have been idling" seems to pop up, ready to be dissected, commented upon and frequently skewered in the humorous, erudite way that is uniquely Russell Baker's.

Mr. Baker moved out of Washington in 1974, and although he "sneaks onto" the political turf of most pundits, he prefers producing a different kind of social commentary. He chronicled "the change in what was needed to keep Americans entertained," told of how "a passion for newness produced an era of exemplary shabbiness," of how Americans seem to have lost the ability to make sense when they talk.

He also wrote of how his generation -- which grew up in the Depression, fought World War II and brought America to the apex of its power -- saw its offspring go from "sweet newborn babe, to beloved 'kid,' to 1960s firebrand, to early Reagan yuppie, to today's middle-aged fogy."

Mr. Baker figures he has written more than 4,000 columns, something in excess of 3 million words, or more than double the "mere 1.3 million words" in Marcel Proust's mammoth "Remembrance of Things Past."

An avid student of Dickens, Mr. Baker sometimes out-humbles Uriah Heep, professing that his abilities are meager and his success inexplicable. He knows better, but he is wise enough -- and genuinely humble enough -- to know also that it is unseemly to proclaim one's own superiority.

Mr. Baker's first column was a parody of a John F. Kennedy televised press conference. Katherine Anne Porter's "A Ship of Fools" topped the Times' best-seller list, and a U.S. Army helicopter was reported shot down by communist forces in the central highlands of South Vietnam.

Times change -- and yet the lead story in Mr. Baker's newspaper that day noted that "medical care for the aged, tax relief and the authorization of funds for foreign aid head the agenda of the House and Senate."

Neil A. Grauer is the author and illustrator of "Wits & Sages," a book about syndicated columnists. He writes from Baltimore.

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