RUSSELL Baker, who began his career at The Sun and went on...

Salmagundi

March 15, 1993

RUSSELL Baker, who began his career at The Sun and went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes at The New York Times, seems to us the perfect replacement for Alistair Cooke as the host of "Masterpiece Theatre" on public television stations. Not the same accent, certainly, and not the same personal style. A man who claims he cuts his own hair, Mr. Baker is not your typical television personality.

But in our opinion he's something much too rare on television these days -- he exudes authenticity. (We can almost hear him taking that remark and spinning it into one of his fanciful columns that almost tricks readers into discovering some insight into life.) Maybe he would prefer to be called folksy. At any rate, don't expect any Queen's English snobbery from Russell Baker. He has even admitted that he can't promise not to smirk when introducing an episode that strikes him as slightly ridiculous.

In a country that has long equated the Queen's English with education and status, Alistair Cooke has been a great success in large part because he conveyed all those proper British qualities, but somehow did it in a way that didn't strike his American cousins as condescending. In fact, after several decades in this country, Mr. Cooke is probably as much American as British.

Mr. Baker, of course, put his own twist on his decision to accept the job: "If you're not on television, you're not an American," Baker said last month in explaining his decision to accept the job. "All Americans want to be on television . . . That was my dreadful secret. I wanted to be on television."

That's the kind of endearing irony that will, we feel sure, make Russell Baker as much an icon for public television as Alistair Cooke.

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