Russell Baker Essays
Russell (Wayne) Baker 1925–
American nonfiction writer.
Baker is a highly regarded, widely read newspaper columnist and humorist. While serving on the Washington bureau of the New York Times during the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Baker earned recognition for his wry commentaries on the federal bureaucracy, many of which formed the basis of An American in Washington (1961). Since 1962, Baker has written the "Observer" column in the Times. The essays in this column satirize such issues as politics, the economy, and popular culture. Baker is especially praised for his insight into the human condition, particularly the daily problems of ordinary people.
Many of Baker's columns have been published in collections: No Cause For Panic (1969), Poor Russell's Almanac (1972; revised, 1982), and So This Is Depravity (1980). In 1979 Baker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his columns. He is the first humorist to win the award in that category since its inception in 1970. Baker's critically acclaimed autobiography Growing Up (1982) earned him another Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The book chronicles Baker's childhood and family life during the Great Depression. The quiet humor and the lack of melodrama in his portrayal of that era prompted critics to compare Growing Up to the works of Mark Twain. In a style which is understated yet powerful, Baker describes personal hardships with subtle emotion. Growing Up is considered a notable work of Americana. The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams (1983) is a recent collection of Baker's essays.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11.)
What is to be done about the Republican Party? Sixty years ago it was the party of Dwight Eisenhower and a dynamic suburban middle class putting an end at last to the long reign of the New Deal Democrats. This summer it became the pathetic captive of Donald Trump, a television performer professing to speak for a discontented and sullen middle class.
From Eisenhower to Trump in sixty years—this was a real trip to the bottom, make no mistake, a humiliation indeed for a once-powerful party. The Republicans had had ample time to avoid it. There had long been warning signs of a party slipping into irrelevance, but there seemed to be no Republican leader shrewd, charismatic, or brave enough to shake it out of its intellectual slumber.
Nelson Rockefeller had been purged years ago for association with Henry Kissinger and for opposing the thought of Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley, brilliant political writer though he might be, was only a journalist, after all. The Bush family, which had recently had a son elected president by the Supreme Court with one of its customary five-to-four votes for Republicanism, may have wondered if it would be worth disturbing the Court again to spare the party a little humiliation.
Whatever the case, what Trump saw when glancing at the arthritic Grand Old Party was the empty shell of a political machine, available for occupancy. Adding it to the world-famous assortment of properties and consumer goods bearing the Trump name—hotels, golf courses, gambling casinos, colleges, beefsteaks, and so forth—would not only give him some sorely needed political legitimacy but would also enhance his celebrity, always a serious consideration with Trump. He took it over.
For people who like their history adorned in high-flown nomenclature, this period might be called “the Trump Captivity,” and “captivity” describes the condition in which the Grand Old Party awoke late in the 2016 presidential campaign to discover it was wearing the Trump logo.
Equally surprising had been the discovery that Trump was running for president. This was odd because Trump had never seemed to be a political animal. No one thought of him as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. Having so little political identity, he surprised serious politicians in 2015 by declaring himself a Republican candidate for president and starting to play one on television.
His stage was a televised set of “debates” designed to show off the party’s presidential talent. These gave Trump an immediate advantage, since he was the only performer already known to millions, having played host on a popular TV “reality” show in which he tested people for business acumen and fired those who didn’t measure up.
Political experts who stay on top of the cable TV bulletins and know who is who in the blogosphere now assure us that Trump has never been interested in politics. It is a killer job: phone ringing all night with bad news, constant wars in distant unpronounceable countries, incessant funeral speeches to comfort next-of-kin after mass slaughters of the innocent by people exercising the constitutional right to bear arms. It didn’t seem a natural career choice for Trump, whose real ambition in life seemed to be enhancement of his own fame, increasing his own celebrity status, becoming ever more famous for being famous. In street slang he would be “a publicity hound.”
He quickly learned that playing the political eccentric was a sure way to become famous in the media, and he played it to the hilt. With his insouciant devil-may-care style, calculated to make the hicks gape at his daring contempt for serious politics, he enchanted the media, which delighted in spreading tales of his descent into swinishness.
Mexicans were vilified as rapists, NATO allies as chiselers too cheap to pay for their own defense. John McCain, an American war hero of the Vietnam era, was a “loser.” Vladimir Putin with his brutish KGB training was a praiseworthy example of the statesmen Americans should admire. President Obama, however, was not to be trusted: Trump had it on good authority that he was not even an American, just an African outsider criminally exercising power from inside the White House. These bizarre imbecilities flowed from Trump to the grateful media with almost daily regularity, and on some days with servings of cruelly personal insults aimed at the overweight and the victims of crippling medical ailments.
To the extent that it had any political content at all, the Trump Captivity might be described as a flare-up of reactionary demagoguery. There was obvious racism in the effort to deny Obama’s citizenship and a hint of more in the slogan about making America “great again.” This could not have been easy to swallow for a party one of whose founders was Abraham Lincoln, yet it submits quietly to the more blatant racism still flourishing in Congress with the do-nothing politics of Senate leaders like Mitch McConnell and the reactionary House faction that rules by terrifying two inert parties.
A few prominent Republicans, angry about the party’s humiliation, publicly declared Trump was unfit to be president and said they would not vote for him. They were a lonely few, however, until recordings of Trump’s vulgar sexual comments about women he had known and coveted produced a revulsion against his nomination. It was not Trump’s politics that fired this extraordinary uprising of party regulars; it was the vulgar crudity of his language. He was so obviously not a gentleman.
Whatever the election results, the Republican Party has lost its credibility as a political force. When the shock subsides, a few people who still care will have to decide what the party of the future will be, if any. At present it seems to be drifting passively toward oblivion. The campaign has made it clear that the party needs more than an overhaul. It needs reinventing. It needs ideas.
We live in a democracy that owes its origins to the ancient Greeks. Candidates for office like to invoke the will of the people and defer to the people’s choice, but anyone who lived through the election of 2000 knows that the presidential candidate who received the majority of the people’s votes did not take up residence in the White House. The founders of our nation were much more influenced by the representative democracy of the Roman republic than they were by the direct democracy of the Greeks. Yet both democratic systems incorporated institutions and prejudices that are wholly unacceptable today. These included slavery, which was an integral part of Greek and Roman life, as well as a disposition to keep women in the shadows. Even Pericles is reported to have declared that the best any woman could hope for was not to be talked about.
The ugly opinions that Donald Trump has been disseminating in his astonishingly successful march through the presidential race serve to remind us of the dark side of democracy. In its direct form democracy only functions within a single city such as a Greek polis, but in the representative form of the Romans it served adequately for a large and diverse state. In a nation as large as the United States, even during its earliest years, direct democracy would have been out of the question, as the Founders recognized, but they also understood the potential risks from gerrymandering and voter fraud. Even so they made a fatal compromise in allowing slavery to continue in the new nation. This mistake sowed the seeds of conflict that led to the Civil War and to racial tensions that continue to plague the country today.
We are a nation shaped by immigrants, as the Statue of Liberty reminds us, but now, horrifyingly, immigrants are increasingly subjected to prejudice for both their ethnic identity and their religion. Older and equally repellent anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, both of which were rampant when I grew up, have now been transformed into a vile intolerance of Muslims. We have never achieved the toleration to which we aspire, although there have been corrections, and our society has undoubtedly been better at absorbing ethnic and religious differences than many other countries. But the present election process has revealed that an ignorant, mendacious, and incoherent bully can find support among important segments of the American people. The impact of this support is potentially catastrophic.
The election we are now confronting is perhaps the most grotesque indictment of American democracy since the landslide election of Warren G. Harding, who promised a “return to normalcy” in 1920, but he proved to be corrupt and beholden to others. Trump, though no angel in his business affairs, is not, so far as we know, the creature of a criminal syndicate. Nevertheless, the people, whom the Greeks called demos, whence democracy derives its name, can be easily swayed by plainspoken leaders who speak directly to their deepest anxieties.
This danger worried the ancient Athenians so much that they imposed impressive controls on their political life. Among these was an extraordinary institution called ostracism, whereby the people could vote annually whether to send an unwelcome public figure into exile for ten years by casting six thousand pieces of broken pottery (ostraka) inscribed with his name. Another safeguard was the use of carefully designed balloting machines, kleroteria, which made it impossible for any person to insert more than one voting token (kleros) at a time. Even so, the people could always be moved by irrational and emotional appeals. This sometimes allowed an aggressive speaker with outrageous opinions to bring the Athenian democracy close to disaster.
Athens in the fifth century BC produced its own Donald Trump in the person of Cleon, whose wealth, bluster, ignorance, and polemic are well known to us from the historian Thucydides as well as from the comic playwright Aristophanes, who mercilessly derided him. Thucydides reports that Cleon’s fiery rhetoric made him exceptionally persuasive to the people. This nearly led Athens to commit an atrocity when the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos rebelled against Athens’s empire.
Cleon proposed that all the city’s male citizens should be killed and all its women and children enslaved. Although he initially persuaded the Athenians to vote for this appalling punishment, a reconsideration of the vote, even after the order to carry it out had already been issued, led to a passionate debate, of which Thucydides gives a vivid account. In a speech that he ascribes to Cleon, we read, “The most ordinary people run cities much better than the most intelligent.” Fortunately Diodotus, Cleon’s antagonist in this debate, persuaded the Athenians to reverse their savage decision, and a ship was hastily dispatched to the commander in Lesbos to revoke the previous order. The oarsmen rowed night and day to reach the island in time, and they did.
But a demagogue like Cleon, even if he fails, poisons the polity by breeding other politicians like him, and this is a sobering lesson. Just over a decade after Mytilene was saved, the Athenians slaughtered the male population of Melos, another rebellious island, and enslaved its women and children. A vicious xenophobe cannot be considered a onetime menace, but a harbinger of fanaticism to come. The world’s first democracy still has something to teach us about where danger lies in trying to rely upon the will of the people. It lies precisely with a demagogue who has the ability to make a connection with those who respond to his pernicious views.
From the first debates of 2015, Donald Trump stood out because he wasn’t one of the usual suspects. He was the to-hell-with-it candidate. If you dislike politics generally, don’t study or understand them but are sure the country has declined and that the future looks worse than the past, Trump is your man. He doesn’t know politics any better than you do, but he says (reassuringly) that it is a mug’s game, and he ought to know. He comes from money, lives for money, and before he entered the race he was in the business of buying favors from the mugs.
Who better to avow that the system is rigged? Everyone admits that the Clinton Foundation has done good works. But anyone with a nose can tell that it uneasily mixes philanthropy and aggrandizement. Trump took his cue and blew it up and—since Hillary Clinton is known to have met with donors while she was secretary of state—he called the foundation itself a pay-to-play scheme. Trump the insider has the best and biggest nose for such things; and in the mood of perpetual disquiet these last two years in America, the undeniable blots on his character have made people strangely trust him more.
Comparisons with Reagan are misleading. Reagan was intimate with politics and political interests as far back as his presidency of the Screen Actor’s Guild. He tricked his opponents into underrating him, right up to the election of 1980, but the reason wasn’t the lack of a consistent ideology or a coherent personality. Reagan was undeviating in his overall views: the people who supported him knew what they were getting. With Trump, they prefer not to know, and he panders to wishful ignorance by saying that whatever he does in his first days as president, he’ll do it good and do it fast. The vagueness, bloat, and feckless reiteration of the promises (the height of the wall with Mexico, the total ban on Muslim immigration, the vow to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”) go against the grain of a representative government based on checks and self-restraint.
Trump the post-political billionaire can seem refreshingly heterodox only if one performs a drastic curtailment of common judgment. The right-wing anti-imperialist Pat Buchanan thinks that Trump has the mind-set and stamina to extricate the US from our half-dozen wars in the Greater Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia). On the evidence, one would guess that Trump indeed has a less hearty appetite for wars than Hillary Clinton, but his solutions often sound like “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” rather than the reasoned noninterventionism this branch of apologists are looking for.
On the other hand, the description of Trump as a pawn of Putin—offered by mainstream and liberal outlets like Slate, Salon,The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post—is a projection of fantasy as palpable as Buchanan’s and even more irresponsible. Trump seems to admire Putin as he admires other executives, in business and politics alike, who have proved themselves by building up their success with a flamboyant disregard of rules. We know little more than that.
In the first debate, Clinton was the beneficiary of a total failure of preparation by Trump. Even so, her stated positions and political history leave her unequipped to repel his charges against immigration, the American jobs lost through trade deals, and the scenes of disorder in American cities that followed the killing of black men by police and the killing of police by black men. Hillary Clinton is the reverse of a popular politician—she is more like an ideally dutiful chair of a committee—and it has been an odd feature of the campaign to advertise her as “the most qualified person ever to run for president.”
What have qualifications, in this CV-building sense, to do with the traits we look for in a president? If the sane and sensible are bound to vote for Clinton as probably the less dangerous bet, still her errors of judgment as secretary of state remain a disturbing fact. In brutal vulgarity of sentiment, her statement on the mutilation and murder of Muammar Qaddafi, “We came, we saw, he died,” and the cackle that followed the proclamation are barely matched by Trump’s saying of his failure to pay taxes: “That makes me smart.”
The disaster of Clinton’s policy of regime change in Libya and her desire to repeat the experiment in Syria are the most vulnerable points in her candidacy. But they won’t be a major issue in November, because Republicans have cared only about a fraction of the catastrophe, the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. A larger and more elusive weakness is that she exudes entitlement, of a meritocratic sort, and seems to lack a shred of feeling for people who played by the rules and haven’t been crowned with success.
The exceptions are the needy and minorities; but that only reinforces the sense that Democrats treat with contempt those whom they cannot patronize. How many non-elite white voters can now be drawn by Trump to vote with their resentment of the selective compassion of liberals? Trump, of all people, with his trademark saying “You’re fired,” has turned into the candidate of people who feel they have lost out but don’t know why—the people Nathanael West called “the cheated.”
The domestic state of the nation is so unpropitious in October 2016 that one may pity the winner of this election as much as the loser. We are living in a country under recurrent siege by the actions of crowds. There is the Tea Party crowd with their belief that global climate disruption is a scientific hoax; there is the Black Lives Matter crowd with their ambiguous slogan “No Justice, No Peace”; and there are more ominous developments, such as the acts of serial defiance of the federal government by the Bundy family in Nevada and Oregon. Whoever comes next will have the task of restoring respect for the law and a common adherence to the Constitution—the heaviest of burdens, even for a candidate prepared by training and disposition to carry it.