Web Essays

Unimposing Little Gems

Russell Baker was a columnist’s columnist

By Ernest B. Furgurson | January 28, 2019
Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Sixty-six years ago, Russell Baker, who died on January 21 at the age of 93, was the London correspondent of the newspaper where I spent most of my working life, the one its own editor called “the best unread paper in the country,” the once great Baltimore Sun. On June 2, 1953, Baker dispatched a story that began:

“All the races of the earth sat within the crumbling gray walls of Westminster Abbey today to see a beautiful young woman crowned queen of 400,000,000 people and kissed by her dashing young husband.”

Across the Atlantic, James Reston, chief of the New York Times’s Washington bureau, read those and 3,500 more words that rolled richly after them to describe the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He reacted promptly. As he remembered, “I spotted Russell Baker writing iambic pentameter in London for The Baltimore Sun and invited him sight unseen to come around if he ever got jumpy.”

The next year, back from London, Baker got jumpy, filed his last report for the Sun and joined the Times. When the Sun tried to lure him back in 1962 by offering him a column on its editorial page, the Times countered with its own column offer. Another 20 years after that, Reston wrote that Baker had been “in turn our White House, State Department, and congressional reporter and designated poet, and has by some magic managed to make us smile at human folly ever since.”

By 1998, Baker had filed some 4,800 Times columns, each one an unimposing little gem, well over three million words, always composed on deadline. They took on every conceivable subject, from lofty politics to the annoying facts of everyday life (see “They Don’t Make That Any More,” 1975)

In his very last one, trying to explain why he had kept on and on, Baker took what he called “the otherwise inexcusable liberty of talking about me and newspapers. I love them.”

He truly did. I did too.

One night in the late ’50s, Russ had shown up back in Baltimore, where he had lived during his teenage years, on a jazz night at Martick’s, the Mulberry Street bistro that served as the city’s Bohemia. He pushed up to the table beside me, and between excursions into Dixieland he quizzed me about what I wanted to do next. Not that night, but next year, and the next.

Of course I wanted to do exactly what he had done, get out of town, go to Washington, don a trench coat, chase wars. I thought later that Russ had been scouting for Reston, looking for fresh talent. But I had already been told quietly that I would be the Sun’s next Moscow correspondent, and I wasn’t about to risk upsetting that adventure.

En route to Moscow, however, there was a year in Washington, covering the 1960 election and the Senate. There I sat in the press gallery beside Russ Baker and Dick Lyons of the Post and Don Irwin of the Herald Tribune. For no reason except human kindness, these three accepted me as a younger brother, admitted me into their lodge. Our muttered conversation as we looked down was mostly jagged comment about the Senate elders below, Johnson and Dirksen, Humphrey and Russell, Fulbright and Hickenlooper. Russ casually dropped immortal lines: “There comes Ken Keating in Charlie Bickford’s old hair.”

Yes, it’s best to have been there.

One day that year Russ drove his wonderful wife Mimi and me up to Gettysburg, where Eisenhower, who was still president, was lying quiet until the fall uproar passed. Maybe Ike appeared that day for 30 seconds, but I find no record of whether he said anything. In memory, the high point of that outing was somewhere along U.S. 15 when we passed a Peugeot, a new brand to me, and I was impressed that the cosmopolitan Bakers identified it so casually.

For most of that year, I was still commuting from Baltimore, catching the 9 A.M. train with congressmen Eddie Garmatz and George Fallon to make it to the Capitol by 10. On some sunny days, Russ suggested we take lunch to the Botanical Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill, and sometimes we hiked back up Pennsylvania Avenue to our offices. Then on the stormy eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, I as the new man in our bureau was assigned to cover the next day’s parade. When the snow deepened into what Russ later called “a real Minneapolis-quality genuine Washington paralyzer,” he invited me to stay with him and Mimi at their townhouse up Connecticut Avenue. Next morning he and I slogged three or four miles back down the street to work.

Downtown, Russ headed for the Capitol and I stopped at Lafayette Park, facing the White House and the reviewing stand before which the inaugural parade would pass in review. The prospect facing me was several hours of shivering, while at the Capitol the new president notified the world that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden” to protect liberty and then the parade in his honor struggled along Pennsylvania Avenue against the cold west wind.

I was rescued in my waiting by Don Womack, assistant superintendent of the Senate press gallery, whose duty that afternoon was to defend the press bleachers from interlopers. Russ had introduced us my first day in the gallery, and we discovered that Don was from my own hometown in Virginia. When Don saw me approaching with collar up in the cold, he beckoned me closer. Looking around furtively, he produced from inside his topcoat a beautiful pint of Old Fitzgerald. With this we survived until the tanks and missiles, cadets and midshipmen, half-frozen Boy Scouts and drum majorettes marched by into the darkness, and the new president withdrew into the White House. So again, I thank Russ, for introducing me to Don, who kept me conscious through it all.

In 1978, as chief of the Sun’s Washington bureau, I was drafted to be a Pulitzer Prize juror in the Commentary category. Our panel read some strong entries, but seemed to slump toward doing the easy thing by choosing the work of Vermont Connecticut Royster, former editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal. He was a respected conservative who had been awarded the prize for editorial writing 15 years earlier. But his upright columns could not compete with Baker’s playfulness, with pieces that readers turned to for fun, not duty. After I wrote a strong memo to that effect, sure enough we nominated Baker for the 1979 prize, and he won it. (Both writers later won another Pulitzer, Royster for Commentary and Baker for his touching memoir, Growing Up.)

As I sit now wondering where this ramble is going, I recall the day I last saw Russ and Mimi, when they invited me to lunch in Leesburg before I did a Civil War book talk down the street. As I left their house I realized I’d lost my reading glasses. Within seconds those two dumped out drawers all over the house, producing dozens of long unused spectacles, none of which worked for me, so Russ drove me to a drugstore where I solved the problem.

What I’m saying is that everything I remember about Russ Baker has a common thread. It’s not the easy genius of his writing, in his newspaper columns or his longer think pieces or even his quietly moving memoirs. It is that in his millions of words, through decades when every day’s news brought reasons for outrage, there was never a piece that was snarky or intentionally hurtful. It is that among all the plaudits, the true things said about Russ since he died, the word that best describes his work and his life is kindness.

What a way to go.

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