By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, April 21, 2002

Home : Life : Today's Stories

A master at landing a punch line

Russell Baker, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Observer'' column
for 36 years for The New York Times, seems to be a kind of human
magnet for the wry and humorous in everyday life.

Such was the case during a commuter flight in the early 1970s from
Washington, to the Albany County Airport to visit his daughter, who
attended Stockbridge Academy in the Berkshires.

"I was at your airport, waiting in line to rent a car at one of the big
agencies along with several other Washington people who were on my
flight,'' Baker recalls.

"There was some kind of problem with the person at the front of the line.
I saw it was Thurgood Marshall (the late U.S. Supreme Court justice
and first African-American on the nation's highest court). He was
holding up the line because they wouldn't rent him a car. He apparently
didn't have proper identification.

"I remember Justice Marshall had this look on his face like
what-am-I-doing-here and he was fumbling over what to do next.
Somebody behind me from Washington stepped up and vouched for the
judge and he got his rental car,'' Baker says, chuckling in a deep, throaty
rasp that overlays the hint of a drawl.

The Marshall anecdote is vintage Baker. Humor through observation. A
journalist's eye for detail. A storyteller's sense of pace. And a punch line
that's gentle and stealthy, catching you off guard.

Timeless satire

Baker, 76, retired from the Times since 1998, but still busy on book
projects and as the erudite armchair host on public television's
"Masterpiece Theatre,'' will bring his brand of timeless satire to the
University at Albany on April 25 as part of the Writers Institute's spring

"I'm going to make sure I bring plenty of ID with me,'' Baker deadpans.
It will be his first visit to the city proper, drawn by the work of the
Institute's founder.

"I've never met William Kennedy, but he's a big name in my house, and
that's why I'm coming,'' Baker, who lives in Leesburg, Va., says in a
phone interview. "I've read his novels and I feel he's created Albany, the
way Faulkner created Mississippi.''

After a lengthy career writing in column format -- 750-word bursts of
prose Baker once described as "like trying to do a ballet in a telephone
booth'' -- he prefers the longer form nowadays.

He writes extended reviews and literary think pieces for The New York
Review of Books, including last month's assessment of three recent
books on Theodore Roosevelt -- that rare creature, a president Baker

"Reviewing is a nice kind of writing when you're retired and relaxed and
not hyped up like a column where you're sweating it out worrying if
they'll read past the second paragraph,'' Baker says. "I don't really give
a damn if people read to the end of one of my long reviews.''

In between occasional criticism and journalism, Baker is at work on a
book about how to read. "My theory is that reading is dead or it's going
to be if somebody doesn't write an entertaining book about how to do
it,'' he says.

Baker also has edited two major literary anthologies, The Norton Book
of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor

News to him: He said his designation as a satirist was news to him.

"I didn't know what I was doing was satire until I started writing a
column for the Times in 1962 and Time magazine did a piece shortly
afterward calling satire alive and well and I was part of the trend, along
with Art Buchwald,'' Baker says.

Still, Baker prefers a description he coined for the columnist's craft:
"gassy emissions.''

Baker began emitting his gaseous opinions in a transitional period at the
end of the Eisenhower administration and the start of John F.
Kennedy's, when it suddenly became permissible to poke fun at the high
and mighty again.

"Nobody laughed under Eisenhower and government was serious for
good cause,'' Baker says. "The hydrogen bomb was a deadly reality in
those days, and the world was a harried place. We'd just gotten out of
World War II with a very narrow escape.''

Baker recalled interviewing the comedian Red Buttons backstage in the
nation's capital during the Eisenhower era. "I asked him why nobody did
political humor at that time and he said it would offend people and you'd
just die on stage,'' Baker said. He told Buttons a popular joke at the
time among reporters, who, upon passing the White House, called it "the
tomb of the well-known soldier.''

Buttons cringed and shook his head. The comedian wouldn't be caught
dead or alive using that line.

Baker said he sees a parallel between the public mood during
Eisenhower's presidency and the post-Sept. 11 psyche regarding
President George W. Bush's war on terrorism.

"We seem to be back there for the moment, afraid to laugh at the
government or make fun of the President,'' Baker said. "I'm always
hopeful, though.''

Thanks to newspapers

Baker started his newspaper career as a paper boy and eventually was
hired as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun in 1947, when the
legendary H.L. Mencken was still in the newsroom.

"Thanks to newspapers,'' Baker wrote in his farewell "Observer'' column
that ran in the Times on Christmas Day in 1998, "I have made a
four-hour visit to Afghanistan, have seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight,
breakfasted at dawn on lamb and couscous while sitting by the marble
pool of a Moorish palace in Morocco and once picked up a persistent
family of fleas in the Balkans.''

Baker says he does not pine for the bygone column, his alter-ego during
four decades and perhaps the most prized real estate in journalism.

"I haven't missed it for a moment,'' Baker says. "I'm very conscious of
age and I realize that America hates old people and I'm old. I also
wasn't a star like others at the Times, who went on TV and became part
of the news. I come out of the older school that it's somehow indecent if
you were a newspaperman to become involved in the news.''

Upon deeper reflection, though, Baker says he has one regret about
giving up the column.

"I got to air all of my troubles three days a week in the column. I never
needed a psychiatrist before ... ,'' he says, pausing for effect and letting a
Bakerific ellipsis hang in the receiver's long-distance air.

Russell Baker