In this interview with Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic, the now deceased New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater Russell Baker offered a few nuggets on work, writing, politics, comedy, and journalism. I extracted a few of my favorite portions.
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.
On writing as labor:
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.
On changes in the political scene in Washington:
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.
On comedic writing (I censored the curse words):
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 “s***” or “f***,” 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.
On the pointless, inconsequential concluding question:
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?