Russell Baker: ‘When Writing Is Fun, It’s Not Very Good’

Falling potatoes, reading lists, and humor critiques: a wide-ranging conversation with the legendary New York Times columnist, who died this week at 93

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When Russell Baker imagined his own death for The New York Times in 1979, it was because he’d just experienced something delightfully unsettling while taking a walk near his apartment on 58th Street. There he was, about to reenter the building, when something huge splatted on the sidewalk at his feet.

It was a raw potato. And for a deadpanning humorist on deadline, the potato was a gift. Somebody had chucked the thing off the roof of the 48-story apartment building across the street. “After a certain age most people probably speculate occasionally on the manner of their ultimate departure, but the possibility of becoming a potato victim was one that had never occurred to me, and I did not like it,” Baker mused in his next column. “On a slow-news day, it might merit a paragraph or two on the Associated Press wire: ‘Potato Mashes Man.’ ”

The truth was, Baker was tickled by this ridiculous brush with death. “If it had hit me, it would have killed me,” he later told the writer Hal Gieseking. “And I was delighted. Here’s a column. What a way to die!”

Baker, who died this week at 93, was the longest-running columnist in the history of The New York Times. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1979, for commentary, and was so beloved that he made the cover of Time magazine that year. He won a second Pulitzer, in 1983, for a biography about his Depression-era childhood, Growing Up. In the early 1990s, he became the host of Masterpiece Theatre. He announced the end of his “Observer” column at the Times on Christmas Day 1998. He’d been writing it since 1962. (“Don’t make too much of it,” he joked in an interview soon thereafter with The Baltimore Sun, where he’d started his career as a police reporter. “It’s only daily journalism.”)

About six years ago, I was working my way through the Times’ archive, rereading Baker’s columns from the 1970s and ’80s, and I got to wondering what he was up to. When I found him in the phone book and realized he lived a short drive away from me, I dialed. Had I reached Russell Baker the writer? Yes. Might he consider an interview? Well, okay.

So I drove to Leesburg, Virginia, a little courthouse town outside of Washington, D.C., where he was living at the time. Baker and I met in the sunny library of his brick house. A grandfather clock kept time from the hallway. Baker had chosen to live a mile or so away from the countryside where he was born. In Growing Up, Baker recounted his earliest memory there, the moment that first startled him into consciousness, when a cow bowed its gigantic head through his open bedroom window.

The way Baker told that story was, like so much of his writing, deeply funny—marked by a mix of defiance and curiosity, and a deep appreciation for the absurdity of living. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation that day.

Adrienne LaFrance: We’re not far from where you were born.

Russell Baker: I came back in, I think, 1985. Forever ago. I worked at the Times for 30 or 40 years. Just endlessly. I came down here in 1985, but it was still fairly undeveloped, nothing like it is now. It was charming then. 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 a 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 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.

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 at the ’90s. I’m also reading This Is How You Lose Her [by Junot Díaz]. He’s just damn good. The stories aren’t that interesting but really well written. Let’s see, what else? I’ve been reading another book on [the 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: 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 in junior high , 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 reread 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 has been inspired by ordinary observations—and so much of your humor comes from articulating the absurdities that other people simply accept. I’m curious whether you’ve seen a change over time in the kinds of things you notice. How has the way you observe the world changed?

(Dirck Halstead / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty)

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 a habit. 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. But what else is there to do in Leesburg?

LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? 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, [Senator 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.

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. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.

When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. [Sam] 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.

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.

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 Shakespearean 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 [the 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 the exceptional reporting is 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.

That’s the only way to do it. 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 buyout. 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: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic 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 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. [Maureen] Dowd has a sharp tongue, and she had a gift for phrase making, cruel stuff. But 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: 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. 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, 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. I love Baltimore. I’m still an Orioles fan.

LaFrance: I remember Memorial Stadium.

Baker: Memorial Stadium! A terrible place to take a car. 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. 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: Of all the jobs you’ve had, which did you like best?

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 was foolish to come back. They lured me back with the White House. We used to sit in the lobby of the West Wing, just outside, most of us sleeping. These great reporters like [makes exaggerated snoring noise].

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 [the 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. But magazines tend to promise more than they deliver. Vanity Fair is like that. That’s where journalism is now. 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?