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


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.

"When he arrived in the city room in 1948, he was young and all arms and legs," says Ellis T. Baker III (no relation), a former Sun reporter and editor who has remained friends with his former colleague. "He was quiet -- some people have described him as shy, but I'm not so sure about that -- and unassuming, but even then upon his arrival it quickly became apparent that he could write.

"I think Russell knew he could write, but if he didn't, everybody else did. There were distinctive Russell Baker stories right from the outset. He was a very facile writer, with a marked sense of humor."

Mr. Reston, now retired and living in Washington, says: "I don't know even today how I would phrase what he writes. It's just very good writing. He can write critical stuff, yet he never hurts anybody. He's not given to the normal restraints of journalism. Take any sort of controversy that we're involved in -- he's rather inclined to say, 'Well, what of it?' It's not important. So he spoofs it."

Though he still writes often about Washington and politicians, Mr. Baker has over the years found an amazing array of topics to comment on: beer commercials, menus, hardware stores, life in New York (he lived there from 1974 until 1986). At any moment, whimsy is likely to take over, as in this column from the 1970s that satirized fatuous literary memoirs about the Round Table of the Algonquin Hotel:

"This is where I first introduced Tallulah Bankhead to Henry James. They took an instant dislike to each other, for Tallulah was a Giants fan and Henry followed the Dodgers with a subtlety which infuriated Tallulah and infuriated Hemingway, who could not stand James's compound-complex sentences."

Last week, he was musing on Hollywood and movies: "Bergman is best not when he is whining about the death of God, but when he sets Death loose on the countryside telling people their time is up. Confronting a customer who says he still has too many tasks unfinished to die just now, Death says, 'That's what they all say.' "

The outside track

Mr. Baker explains his philosophy on columns this way: "It should be made clear in the column that I don't know what I am talking about -- I'm just another guy who has no information, no insight. I'm Mr. Outsider. When I write something, it's an outside view of Washington. I like that. Once in a while, I find myself -- God knows why -- writing something as if I know what I'm talking about.

"I have no interest in conveying information. I did my time as a Washington reporter. My only interest in what I do for the paper is establishing this persona, this character of an outsider from Outer Leesburg, or Bestial New York, who really doesn't know what he is talking about. And his thoughts probably are not worth the newsprint, anyway."

He acknowledges that some columns in the 1970s showed a darker side than at other times of his career. The politics of the time had something to do with that.

"Thirty years is a long time. You're talking about an entire lifetime for some people," he says ruefully. "Like everybody in my generation, I came into newspaper work covering public affairs being very sympathetic to government. You look at the government as your friend; it was on your side. . . .

"My attitude changed around the time of the Vietnam War. That had something to do with the fact that my sons were of draft age, I suppose. But even before that, I was appalled by the government's attitude toward people who were opposed to the war. I suddenly realized that the government was not my friend any more, and I can see this in my work -- an abrupt turn. I felt this anger at the way people were being treated by their government."

As the Vietnam War and Watergate were defining issues for him, it's not surprising that he continues to show disdain for Richard Nixon. "Nixon was elected because he said he had a secret plan to win the war, and he had none," Mr. Baker says with a dubious smile. "And there is no 'new Nixon.' It's the same old one, the one who will self-destruct just when you're ready to give him another chance."

Ronald Reagan was another matter. "I could never lay a glove on him in print," Mr. Baker says, and there appears to be faint admiration in his tone. "He would just keep smiling, no matter what anybody said or wrote. How could you dislike someone like that?"

His antennae are up with Bill Clinton, though: "I'm not quite sure ++ what to make of him, but I'm suspicious."

A habit of writing

He says that at least for now, he expects to continue writing his two columns a week. "I'm old enough to retire, but I haven't, and part of it is that writing is what I do. I don't dance like Fred Astaire" -- smiling, Mr. Baker leans back in his chair and does a mock twirl -- "all I can do is this damned dull writing, sitting around in sealed rooms. So in a sense, it's a compulsion. In my case, it's also a habit, since I've been doing it for so long.

"But beyond that, I write this column for the New York Times, which is the most desirable showcase for writing that I can think of -- that twice a week, my name will appear before an audience consisting of everybody that I want to be read by. That's very hard to give up."

Not so hard to give up is book-writing. "Growing Up" has become a classic in the field, a superbly written and moving autobiography that, after 10 years, is still passed from one reader to another with a loving urgency.

Yet, Mr. Baker says simply, "I don't have anything I want to write about. That's one reason I took the 'Masterpiece Theatre' job -- people were always asking me what my next book would be."

Besides, he continues, "I'm a commercial writer -- I do it for money. I did 'Growing Up' basically for the money, although I enjoyed doing it finally." He stops to correct himself. "I didn't enjoy it -- I enjoyed hating that I had to do it. I wrote it because I had been offered a large advance -- $100,000 -- and I got that advance because I had just gotten the [1979] Pulitzer Prize in journalism, which shows that you can write an intelligent sentence. And I had been preoccupied with my past for several (( years.

"After writing 750-word pieces, it was agony to write this long book. But I enjoyed getting it out, this material I had been %J carrying around for so long. Driving me was this feeling that I wanted my children to understand me. I've always had a bad conscience about being a parent, and I wanted to explain myself to my children -- where I came from, because they came from such a different world. And if they knew where I came from, maybe they could understand me better."

What Russell Baker found was not only that his children understood him better ("I think it helped bridge some gaps"), but that he had reached a whole new readership.

A new, younger audience

"The first book, in particular, did a lot of wonderful things for me, besides making me a good bit of money," he says. "One thing is that it got me a younger audience. I still get an awful lot of mail on that book, and it comes from young people who were assigned to read it in school. A lot of the letters start: 'I usually hate to read anything that's assigned,' and then they go on to say they loved this book. That's one of the most gratifying things about 'Growing Up.'

"The other thing is that people who had never heard of the New York Times read it. People who never knew I existed were touched by it -- people from strange little towns in Texas, Whitefish Bay, Wis. They were always moved to give me some anecdote about their life, or to tell me about some eccentric relative that they remembered. This mail came in from all over the country, and it was an important thing for me. For the first time I felt like I had touched a much broader audience."

Not that he's expecting much in the future, mind you. This is no time to get cocky.

"Now, the menace is that the day comes when nobody will read you," Mr. Baker says lightly. "You're sailing along blithely, and everybody is saying, 'Why do they publish this old guy?' I think the Times will keep running me for a long time, but nobody will read me. I've seen this happen. Finally you end by becoming ludicrous, absurd."

Somehow, that seems doubtful -- no matter what Russell Baker says.


Current position: Columnist with the New York Times.

Born: Aug. 14, 1925.

Education: Graduated from Johns Hopkins University, 1947, B.A. English literature.

Current home: Leesburg, Va.

Family: Married Miriam Emily ("Mimi") Nash in March 1950; daughter Kathleen and sons Allen and Michael.

On American humor (he is editing an anthology to be published by W. W. Norton): "When you're reading to determine if something is humorous, it becomes very arduous and boring, and very soon you're nodding off. That's true of even the best humorists. One of my favorite humorists is Sid Perelman. I think I read five or six of his collections at a sitting, and it was awful -- a terrible experience."

On being a columnist: "Success is death to a newspaper columnist because it takes away the willingness to take risks. But mainly, before I was successful, I could write feelingly about the difficulties of the kind of people who read the paper. . . But after a while, you become successful, your pay goes up, you're getting medals and prizes, you do books, you're interviewed at lunch by other newspaper men. And it's all phony."

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