Russell Baker RIP: “What Are They Like, These Washingtonians?”

Baltimore-raised Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker dies at 93

Russell Baker, a Baltimore-raised, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, essayist and biographer who hosted the series “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS and had a long-running column in The New York Times, died at his Leesburg, Va., home Monday, his son said.
An About Editing and Writing post from August 14, 2014:

When Russell Baker Made Fun of the High Priests of Journalism

Russell Baker, a columnist for the New York Times from 1962 to 1998, turns 89 today. Along with his newspaper work, he wrote more than a dozen books—the best known is Growing Up. Both the New York Times columns and Growing Up won Pulitzer Prizes. From 1992 to 2004, he also hosted Masterpiece Theater on PBS.

Some years back, for $2.50, I bought a first edition of his first book, An American in Washington, published in 1961 by Knopf. The opening graf: “Washington lies slightly south of Madrid and west of Maracaibo on a swamp littered with marble imitations of ancient Roman and Greek architecture.”

First graf of the second chapter: “What are they like, these Washingtonians? Very much as you and I would be if we found ourselves in curious jobs that Washingtonians perform. Which is to say, cocksure and uncertain, devious and naive, ebullient and melancholy, pompous and frivolous, bored, hard-working, shiftless, wide-eyed and tired of it all, full of dreams and schemes, and, without quite realizing it, a little absurd, for they are mostly common men distinguished largely by possession of uncommon jobs.”

Other chapter headings:

The Society: How to Put on the Dog without Pedigree

How to Be a Great President

Washingtonese: The Art of Obfuscating

Getting Along with Foreigners

The chapter on the press is titled “The Tattlers.” Here’s a part of it:

“At the apex of the society stand the lordly Brahmans, the high priests to whom great men look anxiously for omens of approbation or disfavor. The caste falls broadly into three orders: syndicated columnists, bureau chieftans, and network commentators. Theirs is all that remains of personal journalism, for it is their highest prerogative, taboo to all others in the ‘corps,’ to put their own opinions before the public.

“Obviously Brahmans are important to the government. They may be deadly to the men they oppose en masse. Fortunately for Presidents, congressmen, Cabinet, et al., the caste is riven with jealousies and diversity of view…

“Still, the canny officeholder works to please them. When the lowly reporter comes calling, the great man may have a flunky reroute him to the ‘public information office.’ When the Brahman knocks, the statesman is all teeth and charm. The reporter is a tool to be used when convenient or a nuisance to be brushed aside when he bars the path. The Brahman is a man to be had to tea or dinner or a weekend under sail.”

Who were these Brahmans? Baker doesn’t say but when I got to The Washingtonian in 1969 one of the early pieces I wrote was “The Washington Journalism Establishment.” In it, I bounced off of an earlier piece, by Karl Meyer, for Esquire in 1964 on Washington journalism.

Meyer’s Brahman types 50 years ago included Mary McGrory, Arthur Krock, James Reston, Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, Roscoe Drummond, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Marquis Childs, Charles Bartlett, Doris Fleeson, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Edward P. Morgan, Kenneth Crawford, Richard Rovere, Stewart Alsop, Fletcher Knebel, Henry Brandon, Peter Lisagor, Richard Strout, and Allen Otten.

In 1973 my list included some of Meyer’s picks plus Russell Baker, David Broder, Elizabeth Drew, Art Buchwald, Hugh Sidey, James J. Kilpatrick, Joseph Kraft, John Osborne, Carl Rowan, Jack Germond, Godfrey Sperling, Herblock, Philip Geyelin, Mel Elfin, Robert Boyd, Nicholas von Hoffman, Eric Severeid, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, and Marvin Kalb.

The Washingtonian’s 1993  journalism establishment now seems a 20th century media hall of fame, maybe because newspapers, magazines, and television were prospering in that pre-digital age. Among that year’s top 50: Tim Russert, William Safire, Meg Greenfield, Jim Lehrer, Johnny Apple, Ann Devroy, Michael Elliott, Evan Thomas, Michael Kinsley, Bill Raspberry, Robert Novak, Ted Koppel, Cokie Roberts, David Broder, Bernard Shaw, Al Hunt, Jim Hoagland, Jack Nelson, Dave Gergen, Eleanor Clift, Mark Shields, Brian Lamb, and Brit Hume. Not many of 1993’s top 50 are still active.

Who would Russell Baker think of as today’s media Brahmans? It’s not so easy now—media power is diffused, the big names don’t seem so big. But it’d be a good story.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Mr. Baker.

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