mike licht/Creative commons

When writing is fun, it’s not very good

Humorist and Pulitzer-winner Russell Baker reflects on a life of reporting

My favorite writers are always dying.

So when I discover a new byline attached to a great story in an old newspaper archive, I always make a little wish that the person is still around. This is a selfish hope. I want the writers I love to keep writing forever.

While doing research for a story I wrote about C-SPAN last year, I happened upon a 1994 New York Times column about the network by Russell Baker.

Baker is a household name for a generation of newspaper readers. He was so well-known by 1979 that he made the cover of Time magazine. In the early 1990s, he became the host of Masterpiece Theatre.

But just last year he was new to me. And I was hooked. I began reading through decades of his writing for the Times. In a weekend I plowed through his 1982 memoir, Growing Up.

He had written so much and for so long that I was delighted to learn he is still publishing articles at 88 years old. In fact, Wikipedia suggested, he lives just outside of Washington. The phone book corroborated what I had learned. There was “Baker, Russell” listed with a Virginia phone number. I dialed.

Had I reached Russell Baker the writer? Yes. Might he consider an interview? Well, okay.

So I drove to Leesburg, Va., a little courthouse town where children ride in red wagons down sidewalks along main street and fathers still wear blazers to run errands on Saturdays. Baker and I met in the sunny library of his brick house. A grandfather clock kept time from the hallway.

It occurred to me that eight decades and a ribbon of country road separated Baker from where we sat and the open window of his earliest memory. In Growing Up,for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize, Baker wrote that he was first startled into consciousness by a cow bowing its gigantic head through his childhood bedroom window.

The way Baker tells it is funny, like so many of his stories, and a delight in the absurd still twinkles in his eyes nearly 90 years later.

Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

LaFrance: We’re not far from where you were born. How long have you been back in this area?

Baker: I came back in, I think, 1985. Forever. I used to work at the Times — The New York Times — a long time ago.

LaFrance: And you worked there for a long time.

Baker: I did. I worked at the Times for 30 or 40 years. Just endlessly.

LaFrance: You lived in New York at least part of that time.

Baker: I went to New York in 1974. I lived in Manhattan, on the East side and then on Greenwich Street by Horatio. When we lived there, the Meatpacking District really was a meatpacking district. We lived in a three-story brownstone. I had two floors. But the front steps, there were always a couple of these big guys who handle sides of beef sitting out there.

There were trucks and there was a meatpacking house next to our apartment. You could hear them slamming these sides of beef against the bedroom wall. It was an interesting neighborhood at that time. New York was a little rough then, in the ’70s. But you never had to fear crime down there. The size of these men. They were enormous.

LaFrance: Like bodyguards.

Baker: Exactly.

LaFrance: But then you returned to Virginia.

Baker: I came down here in ’85, but it was still fairly undeveloped, nothing like it is now. It was charming then. I remember at some point back in those days, The Washington Post sent out a staff guy to come interview me, basically what you’re doing. He was getting his first look at Leesburg, and he says, ‘It’s a semi-charming town.’ I thought, ‘That’s about right.’ It’s still semi-charming. Never fully charming.

Strange kinds of cities nowadays, these little urb-oids. You think, ‘My God, there are enough people for a city but there’s no place to get bottle of milk.’ You’ve got to get in a car or charter an airplane or something.

It reminds me of places in North Jersey around Englewood. Leesburg has spread like an ominous growth. It’s just turned into a kind of place I wouldn’t have come to if it had been like this before. But it’s agreeable. I’ve been here so long. I’m at the end game. I’m not planning on moving. I had to get out of New York. I kind of used up New York. I had written there for 12 years. With that kind of work, you use it up.

LaFrance: You wanted to have fresh eyes again.

Baker: Yeah. New York wears you out most of all. So I was ready to get out. I had been looking at apartments in New York. I remember looking at one in Gramercy Park. They wanted your life savings for it.

LaFrance: Would you have gotten a key to the park?

Baker: I don’t even remember if you did or not, but I was looking for a three-bedroom apartment. Everybody laughed at that, of course. This was the 1980s. And this real estate agent showed me this Gramercy Park place. It had three bedrooms, one of which had no windows. I forget the price, but I could barely afford it. That would have been the end of my life, financially.

So I came down, poking around, and I found this place, which was essentially the apartment I was looking for. Except unlike New York this had daylight on four sides and there’s a huge garden out back. So I said, ‘Let’s try that.’

LaFrance: What have you been reading lately?

Baker: I’m reading old books mostly. I’m reading The Mauve Decade by [Thomas] Beer, which is a literary critic’s take on the 1890s. But it’s sort of a sociological view. He wrote it in the 1920s. So the book is almost 100 years old. It’s an interesting view of how people in the ‘20s looked on the ‘90s. I’m also reading — who is the Díaz man?

LaFrance: Junot?

Baker: Right. This is How You Lose Her.

LaFrance: And?

Baker: Well it’s a coup because he mixes Hispanic languages in with the English with great skill. He’s good. He’s just damn good. The stories aren’t that interesting. They’re good humored, funny pieces about sex among kids in a free-swinging kind of culture; not terribly interesting but really well written. Let’s see, what else? I’ve been reading another book on [former Washington Post editor] Ben Bradlee because I know Ben. It’s not special, not very good. There’s nothing in it that I don’t know. We rehash Watergate endlessly, over and over.

LaFrance: Enough already.

Baker: Having lived through Watergate, I don’t need to go there again.

LaFrance: I didn’t live through it and I’m still over it.

Baker: Exactly. So there are Ben Bradlee anecdotes, most of which I know. I really got halfway through the book and put it aside and haven’t reopened it in a long while.

LaFrance: Which writer do you most admire?

Baker: You know, I did Masterpiece Theatre for a long time and I read the Victorian novels, which I should have read when I was in college. I took a degree in English. I was supposed to be reading Victorian novels but never did, of course. I was in the period that read Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

LaFrance: They still assign those.

Baker: I have a granddaughter who was assigned The Great Gatsby a few years ago. I think teachers assign it because they love it. I said to my granddaughter, who was I guess in junior high — is that still an age of school?

LaFrance: Yes.

Baker: I said, ‘Do you know what a bootlegger is?’ She hadn’t the faintest notion. I said, ‘How can you read Gatsby if you don’t know what a bootlegger is?’ But it’s a wonderful book, beautifully written. And I grew up in that era. I recently re-read Gatsby just to see how he did it. You learn a lot about writing from Fitzgerald, at least in that book.

LaFrance: What strikes you about the mechanics of it?

Baker: I’ve read it off and on over the years. It’s a short book. It’s an easy book. It’s really not much more than a long story. But this time I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, which is how he handles conversation among a large group of people.

If you’ve ever written any fiction, trying to create a big scene with a lot of people talking, you tend to do it by everybody talking, with a lot of quotation marks, which is extremely dull and wears out quickly. And you can’t get it right.

But he creates the sense of these big parties at Gatsby’s house where hundreds of people show up, and gives you a sense of what everybody’s talking about with a very sparse use of quotation marks. He’s sort of paraphrasing. It’s beautiful to see how he does it. Because you really know what these people’s minds are like in a very short space. It’s a gift to be able to do that, to write that way.

LaFrance: And you’re still writing for the New York Review of Books.

Baker: I do an occasional piece for them, just to keep my hand in. My mind is too slow now to do much. With age, everything slows down, your mind the most disconcerting of all. I don’t write with the glibness and facility that I used to. It’s a labor for me to write now.

LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?

Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.

LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?

Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.

LaFrance: I’m afraid you’re right.

Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.

LaFrance: So much of your writing is woven around acute observations. I’m curious whether there’s been a change over time in the kinds of things you notice. How has the way you observe the world changed?

Baker: I don’t think my view of the world has changed much since I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I look at things very critically. I’m one of those awful people who’s looking for flaws. Everybody has flaws. This son of a bitch, he spots them right away. It’s an untrusting eye looking at the world. You try to make an argument to me, I immediately will spot the flaw in it. I loved covering politics because politicians are always telling you what they’re doing, and it’s easy to spot.

LaFrance: It seems like you still keep a close eye on politics.

Baker: I do. It’s got to be a habit with me. I spent so much of my life covering politics and I still read the papers closely every day. I get the Times and the Post and various other little papers. I’m always reading politics. It’s just a habit, really. But what else is there to do in Leesburg?

LaFrance: My background is in government reporting and one of the senators I covered was Sen. [Daniel] Inouye from Hawaii. He would tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. Is it really true? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.

Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size.

But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Sen. J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence on everything that Obama and ole whatshisname talked about in the last campaign.

Now, nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced.

A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. They get the job and they discover — I guess it’s mostly because they have to spend all their time raising money — they hate it, it’s boring, they really don’t have any influence anymore. All they can do it posture. Poor old [John] McCain. He made an ass of himself about Benghazi. Who cares about Benghazi? What’s that about? He keeps on chipping away at it but nobody’s paying attention to him, poor guy.

The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story. The last two years [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s main goal was going to make sure he could defeat the president in the next election. When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.

I think it’s because politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy — all those people, they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing. Are you tired of hearing about the fiscal cliff?

LaFrance: I must say some of the reporting is just as bad as the politicking.

Baker: The press has a lot to answer for. The media, as it’s called now. I was covering the Senate before Dan Inouye came. I remember when he came to the House.

LaFrance: 1959.

Baker: He was a powerful guy, Inouye. He really became somebody, a great politician. He acquired seniority.

LaFrance: Who were the most complex or interesting politicians to cover in those days?

Baker: You cover Lyndon Johnson, you don’t need to cover anybody else. He was such a gross character. He was like somebody out of a bad novel. He had Shakesperian depth. He was a comedian. He was an ass. He was brilliant. He was aggressive. He was dangerous. He was a fool at times. There was always a show with Johnson. He dramatized himself and he enjoyed the drama. Tough guy.

LaFrance: I wonder if you know [former Washington Post reporter] Jules Witcover. You must have been hanging around Washington at the same time.

Baker: I know Jules well.

LaFrance: I once interviewed him about how presidential campaign coverage has changed. He told me about covering the Eisenhower election in 1956, how the copy boys on the trains would collect copy and rush off at the next stop to transmit it back to the newsrooms.

Baker: It’s true. Traveling with Eisenhower, you’d file by Western Union and Western Union always had a guy on the plane or train wherever you were. You’d pound this stuff out on a typewriter and give him a page at a time. How it all got to New York, I never knew. I left it to the Western Union guy. I don’t know how people do it nowadays. Reporters, they seem to do everything. They take pictures, they interview people, they transmit. The reporting is really terrible, isn’t it?

LaFrance: Some of it is. But how you transmit your work isn’t what makes a difference, quality-wise. There has always been bad reporting and there is still some exceptional reporting.

Baker: There is. Most of it’s in magazines, though. What I find about reporting now is you don’t know what you don’t know because there aren’t reporters there anymore. There’s nobody covering closely the things they used to. The real valuable reporter is the guy who goes to the beat every day.

LaFrance: I had a city hall beat and one of the staffers there told me I was like a fruit fly you couldn’t smush. I loved that beat.

Baker: That’s the only way to do it. There are only some people who know what’s going on in the newspaper. It’s the guy who goes every day and says ‘Hi,’ talks to the secretaries, bumps into people in the corridors, urinates beside them in the men’s room, they wash their hands together. And pretty soon he knows. You want to know what’s going on in city hall? We don’t have many of those guys anymore. They’re the people who have taken the buy-out. We have too many stars now. I was aware of that when I started doing the [New York Times] column. I had to give up reporting and I hated it. I loved reporting. I just loved bumming around the Senate and talking to those people.

LaFrance: I wanted to ask you about your column and comedy writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?

Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing.

But there’s really not a lot —humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.

Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “shit,” or “fuck,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.

LaFrance: Which contemporary writers do you find funny?

Baker: It seems to be a dying form, doesn’t it? But the guys that you think of were never really that funny with any consistency. I certainly wasn’t. In fact, I thought it was a mistake to try to be funny.

Are there any humor columnists left? There must be. The Post carries a lot of columns. Richard Cohen strains at it now and again but it’s just not his thing. At the Times, [Maureen] Dowd has a sharp tongue. She started as a reporter. Very good. And she had a gift for phrase making, cruel stuff. I wouldn’t say that she’s a humor columnist.

Poor ole Art Buchwald, he went on forever. He hated to give it up. At some point he was moved out of the Style section. Ben [Bradlee] said Art had called him up nearly weeping and said, “You’re killing me. You’re killing my column.” But he always knew what Art was going to do. No one’s ever funny in the newspaper. It’s too ephemeral.

LaFrance: Do you still go back into D.C. at all?

Baker: I avoid it as if it were a famine. I have no reason to go there. I happened to be there when I was changing trains coming down from New York to get out here. There’s a clunker train that comes into Brunswick, a commuter train. I had come down on the Acela but I had an hour or so wait. So I thought, ‘I’ll run over to the Capitol, see what it’s like over there these days.’ Well I couldn’t get near the Capitol. It was like Berlin during the war.

There were people with guns. You can’t go in there unless you’ve got your badge. It was very hostile and cold. I felt this was the way Berlin and Moscow must have been in the days of the dictatorship. Very much a police state. I used to run in and out of the Senate all the time. But this time I felt it was very hostile. I feel that way about Washington, generally, now. I always had a White House press pass. You carried that automatically. Now everybody’s got this stuff clanging around their necks. I don’t really want to go back. It seems unpleasant to me. An unpleasant place. And I understand why, I guess.

Security is out of hand in the United States. It’s crazy. The passion for security. Of course it’s big-business security. How many guys do you see in Washington with guns now? Everybody is getting money. And of course we’re no more secure.

LaFrance: We’re paying for the illusion of security.

Baker: The TSA makes life miserable at the airport. And they’re pumping a fortune into it. It’s absurd. Security in Washington. It’s just as easy to kill the president as it’s always been.

LaFrance: I want to ask you a little bit about Baltimore because I was born there and—

Baker: Oh, you were born there?

LaFrance: Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Baker: I spent a lot of time hanging out at Hopkins when I was a police reporter. Haunting the emergency room, watching people die, and flirting with the nurses.

LaFrance: And you worked at the Baltimore Sun. You know, when I first learned what a newspaper was, it was the Sun.

Baker: It was a pretty good newspaper when I worked for it. Not because of me but before I came even. The Sun. Baltimore. I love Baltimore. Of course I have a lot of connections to it. I went to school there, I went to high school, I went to college there, and went to work at the Sun. My mother’s house was there. I met my wife in Baltimore. Mimi and I — I met her on a blind date one night. She was not the blind date but I got an introduction to Mimi through the blind date. They lived down around the Peabody institute. Baltimore. I love Baltimore. I’m still an Orioles fan.

LaFrance: I remember Memorial Stadium.

Baker: Memorial Stadium! A terrible place to take a car. My son and I would go to games. Park the car over on the old Eastern High School parking lot. You’re locked in. You go to the game and they’re playing the Yankees. The Yankees score 10 runs in the first inning and you can’t move your car for three hours.

But the Sun was a really good paper. They put a lot of money into journalism. Good foreign correspondents. I got a couple of years in London as a correspondent. I really learned the trade in Baltimore. It took me 30 years at the Times to learn what I learned at the Sun in maybe a year.

LaFrance: But New York is New York.

Baker: Yes. I really like New York. I think New York is the only real city. I’ve been in a lot of cities. I like London. Paris is Paris. But New York? You can’t beat New York. I just felt that I couldn’t handle it financially. It’s a place for extremely rich people. I lived in Washington for 20 years and I never felt there was any place there. It was just a job.

LaFrance: It’s hard to imagine feeling at home in Washington.

Baker: Yeah. But I knew everybody. I certainly was very successful there. You work all the time in Washington but you don’t have the feel for it the way you get the feel for a city like Baltimore, which is an interesting city — a full city but on a small scale. You can see how a city works. There are all these communities interacting.

In Washington, you get no sense of that, of being in a city. I loved Baltimore. I still love Baltimore. When I go to Baltimore, I feel like I have so much past associated with it. It’s like home, as close to a home place as I’ve ever had.

LaFrance: I get that feeling when I land at BWI, but I haven’t lived in Baltimore since I was 10. I wonder why that is.

Baker: It has character, as they say. Have you ever seen The Wire?

LaFrance: Oh yes. And you were a police reporter in Baltimore!

Baker: Well David Simon is a great police reporter. He wrote a wonderful book, Homicide. But The Wire was a Baltimore that I didn’t really recognize. But why was it so gripping? I’ll tell you what the difference was. The Wire was a black story. When I was there, Baltimore was the most racist city I’d ever been in. Well, not as racist as Boston, but it was awful for black people. Just awful.

It wasn’t the Old South, it was just mean, nasty, brutal racism. I remember the cops. The police force was all-white when I was there. You get to the David Simon era and it’s a black political structure. So it’s completely different. My districts were usually on the west side of Baltimore. I could walk through those streets at night without any fear. But the cops were terrified because they were so hated, and they treated the black people cruelly.

I remember a cop asked me, ‘Come on, walk with me,’ one night. And I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was a big social street. This guy, an awful man, he said, ‘There’s nothing down here but whores,’ pointing at a woman as close as I am to you, ‘She’s a whore.’ People were just treated like — it was inhuman. And black people were constantly being shot.

LaFrance: Was this in the 1960s?

Baker: The ’50s. Actually 1947 and 1948. It was another age. I hated the police districts. I just saw human behavior at its worst, usually by cops, and it’s because they were terrified.

LaFrance: What did you like best, of all the jobs you’ve had?

Baker: Well I’ve had such good jobs, it’s hard to say. There’s nothing like being a columnist for The New York Times. That’s childhood’s dream of paradise, is it not? I loved being London correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. I could have stayed on and on there. I was foolish to come back. They lured me back with the White House. The White House sounds good but you don’t realize the copy boys could handle it.

LaFrance: There’s not much action there nowadays unless you like stenography.

Baker: Well there never was. We used to sit in the lobby of the West Wing, just outside. We’d sit out there, most of us sleeping. These great reporters like [makes exaggerated snoring noise]. I got sent up to the Hill after that. It’s like it was freedom. Freedom!

LaFrance: What magazines do you read? I see The Nation over there.

Baker: The Nation, they seem to publish twice a day now. Every time I look up, there’s The Nation again. I still subscribe to the New Yorker. That’s a childhood habit. And [editor David] Remnick has done a great job. He’s brought it back from the grave, I think. They have very good reporting. Jane Mayer is a wonderful reporter, well-edited. Magazines tend to promise more than they deliver. Vanity Fair is like that. Once in a while they have good people.

LaFrance: There’s sometimes quite impressive reporting in Vanity Fair but they do so much boring celebrity stuff.

Baker: That’s where journalism is now. Journalism is about the celebrities. I don’t envy you.

LaFrance: Oh?

Baker: Hardest thing in the world to make any sense of a conversation like this. I contemplate it and I’m grateful I gave up reporting.

LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?

Baker: Probably. But what does it matter?

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