A Piedmont gentleman’s reality check for journalists

Russell Baker

Reading the respectful obituaries of Russell Baker, who died at 93 last week, reminded us that this exemplar of journalism — a wry columnist who both humanized the editorial pages of The New York Times for 36 years and served as gracious host of “Masterpiece Theater” on PBS — started his life’s path right here in the Piedmont.

In mining the familiar story of this son of the South — born in the hamlet of Morrisonville over in Loudoun County — here’s what emerges: Journalism, indeed literature, lost a lifetime achiever this week. This humble gentleman regularly reminded his fellow scribes as well as readers not to take themselves so seriously.

“Serious journalism,” he said, “need not be solemn.”

For anyone still toiling in the furiously evolving world of journalism and news these days, that’s a useful reminder.

Despite his world travels in journalism (London bureau chief, Mideast deserts), Baker embodied Virginia, lived in Leesburg and spoke with the gentle accent of the foothills. He shared searing stories of his backwoods roots in Growing Up, the million-seller memoir that won Baker his second Pulitzer in 1983 for biography.

His 1979 Pulitzer recognized his thrice-weekly “Observer” column for the Times, which he wrote from 1962 until Christmas 1998. Baker was the first humorist to win the Pulitzer for commentary.

(Here’s the link to the Washington Post‘s obituary.)

Russell Baker’s spare writing evoked the American legends who preceded him: E.B. White, James Thurber, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain.

His prose hooked readers, made them smarter, made them smile. I shared this excerpt from the Post‘s obituary last week at the January gathering of the Foothills Forum board and advisors:

“Americans don’t like plain talk anymore,” he wrote. “Nowadays they like fat talk. Show them a lean plain word that cuts to the bone and watch them lard it with thick greasy syllables front and back until it wheezes and gasps for breath as it comes lumbering down upon some poor threadbare sentence like a sack of iron on a swayback horse.”

By the time I finished reading that aloud, I could hardly contain my mirth. And I resolved anew to keep my writing simple.

In a career so sweeping — cub reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Capitol Hill reporter, international observer, 15 books or more, Pulitzer Committee chair — Baker kept it lively, subtle, sometimes outrageous. He described his main work for the editorial board as “a casual column without anything urgent to tell humanity.”

The Post’s Jonathan Yardley ranked “Growing Up” with the most enduring recollections of American boyhood. In it Baker documented a hard-scrabble life. “I had one foot back there in this primitive country life where women did the laundry running their knuckles on scrub boards and heated irons on coal stoves.”

Father Benjamin Rex Baker, a stonemason with a fondness for hooch, died when his son was 5. Mother Mary Elizabeth Robinson Baker sacrificed, scrimped and left Virginia during the Depression to move in with New Jersey family members fortunate enough to earn a paycheck. A move to Baltimore eventually aligned geography and talent when Baker took the beginner’s job at The Sun, After proving himself in the highest echelons of reporting, he landed the plum assignment of an editorial page column. The obit from his Times colleagues said the “Observer” was “always carried off with a subtext of good sense.”

But he called it as he saw it. He grew frustrated with political reporting, protesting he was tired of sitting around in the Capitol’s corridors waiting for a head to pop out to tell a lie to the waiting press corps.

As a surprising successor to Alistair Cooke as host of “Masterpiece Theater” from 1993 to 2004, Baker helped mainstream Shakespeare and Agatha Christie for American viewers.

Baker stood out in an era different from today’s breathless breaking news, pompous punditry, tribal politics and vapid social medial celebrity. How? By keeping it humble and remembering that you catch more flies with honey. In these rancorous times, it’s a lesson for local journalists toiling in Baker’s native soil.

After announcing that his “Observer” column in the Times was ending, Baker was being interviewed by a reporter from The Sun. As it began, Baker jokingly admonished the reporter: “Don’t make too much of it. It’s only daily journalism.”

The writer is chair of the Foothills Forum board of directors and a longtime newspaper journalist