The Price of Success Russell Baker surveys his triumphs and asks: Why me?

March 28, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Leesburg, Va. -- Russell Baker has this theory about success. When good things happen to good people, it can be bad for you.

"I think that comes from my upbringing, ever since I was in the cradle: You don't expect anything good to happen," he is saying. "I always thought it was peculiar to me, but this Jewish girl I knew told me that if you were Jewish, you have this giant-thumb view of life. Just when things really start going well for you, this giant thumb emerges from the sky and crushes you.

"I've always had that feeling. I've always been in terror that you've got to pay an awful price for every good break you have. It may come from the fact that my father died at a time in my life when the curtain was just coming up."

He says all this in his wry, wistful manner, the words coming out as polished and thoughtful as though he were putting them on paper for his column in the New York Times.

For Russell Baker, life has been good. Two Pulitzer Prizes, two best-selling books ("Growing Up" and "The Good Times") and 31 years as a columnist for the Times. James Reston, the legendary Washington bureau chief of the Times who was instrumental in getting Mr. Baker his column, calls him "the best writer in the newspaper business that I know about."

It's just gotten better. About a month ago, Mr. Baker, 67, was named to succeed Alistair Cooke, beginning in October, as the permanent host of "Masterpiece Theatre," the oh-so-cultured PBS series. It made good sense: a silver-haired journalist of subtle charm and wit being replaced by another silver-haired journalist who is equally urbane and sophisticated.

"He looks very different from Alistair Cooke because he is so American, but beneath the surface, there are many characteristics they share -- he is an observer and journalist, an observer and commentator," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre." "That is important. He is an elegant writer, and his writing will work very well for television -- it's conversational and clear and straightforward. Also, he has a warm, immediate presence on camera, the undefinable thing one needs to be a successful presence on television."

Well, Mr. Baker. So much good news. Now something really bad is gonna happen soon, right?

He chuckles.

"I don't know for sure," he says, slowing down for effect, "but I intend to keep looking around the corner."

The timing is impeccable, the inflection just right. He punctuates the line with an arch of his silver eyebrows that, along with an unruly thatch of hair, makes him look startlingly like author John Updike.

And that is him, all right. Underlying the wit and congeniality, there's a real sense of the absurd -- and the idea that why in the world, if he might ask, would anybody want to bother with a guy like Russell Baker?

'Show some gumption'

As readers of his two classic volumes of memoirs know, it's been a persistent theme in his life. He was prodded ceasely by his mother to "show some gumption" and "make something of yourself," he writes in "Growing Up," his 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his childhood in Loudoun County, Va., New Jersey and West Baltimore. And he did: top student at City College and Johns Hopkins University, respected reporter and later London correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and then a Washington correspondent and columnist for the Times.

But he remains somewhat baffled by it all, still not believing his good fortune. It's not surprising that self-deprecating asides fill a two-hour lunch at a restaurant near his home, a restored 19th-century house in downtown Leesburg that is only a few miles from his birthplace in Morrisonville.

Asked if he ever reflects on the history of his "Observer" column in the Times, he answers drolly: "I started this column in 1962, 31 years ago, which probably means that a good half of the people who read it when I started are now dead."

And yes, he'll allow with a good-natured smile, "I'm always rather pleased to be going over my old columns -- I'll think, 'Gee, I was good in the old days.' "

But he'll add in the next sentence: "I just fear that I'm losing it now -- that people will catch on that as good as I once was, I can't do it any more. I guess in a way I worry about it every day, when I sit down to write."

Poor man's Cooke

Or what he intends to bring to "Masterpiece Theatre": "Looking at this realistically, I think I'm going to start rather like the poor man's Alistair Cooke. If I get enough confidence to pull things off, then maybe it will evolve into something distinctive."

What's striking is that those around Mr. Baker have shared few of the doubts that often plague him.

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