A titan of 20th-century humor, Russell Baker, has died at 93 years old. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the writer of The New York Times’ nationally syndicated humor column Observer for more than 35 years, (not to mention the author of Growing Up and a host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater), Baker built an editorial career that reported and commented on politics, culture, and beyond in many thousands of articles with numerous publications.
Baker’s start as a reporter covering Washington, the White House, and Congress gave the writer ample perspective and disenchantment with the system to launch a legacy of satire. His thrice-weekly Times column in the ’60s coincided with Baker’s work in other national publications like Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Baker’s wry takes were ripe for The Human Comedy and Speaking Out sections of this magazine that dedicated space to laconic wit and out-there opinions of the time. In 1966, he wrote “The Man Who Beat the Rat Race” and “How the Vietnam Problem Was Neatly Solved, or…” for The Human Comedy pages.
In the first story, a fictional big shot who has everything (“an executive wife with interchangeable hair tints, three-and-a-half children, two cars, two houses…”) decides to resign from the “rat race” when he discovers the strict rules on watchwear in the business elite. “He suffers from the lethal delusion that a man, once embarked on the rat race, can eventually acquire everything needed to live the good life, then resign and eat lotus leaves,” Baker writes. In the latter romp, Baker envisions a solution to the Vietnam War that entails relocating the nation to a made-up island and officially forgetting the mainland, prophesying, in 1966, “… September 17, 1971, had been just another day in Washington. Once again President Johnson had urged the nation to be patient about the Vietnamese war. Secretary of Defense McNamara that afternoon had issued his semiannual declaration that the Viet Cong were no longer winning.”
Baker landed his first Pulitzer for his “distinguished commentary” in the Times in 1978. Among his columns that year was “Heck on Wheels,” a tongue-in-cheek memorial to the recently deceased Norman Rockwell. “Norman Rockwell and I never saw things eye to eye when we worked together on The Saturday Evening Post. Norman was illustrating covers and I was trying to sell the finished product. The selling was hard labor,” Baker writes. While commemorating Rockwell’s blissful paintings, Baker pokes fun at the mundane task of selling papers, particularly to a populace that demands salacious rags: “If I had gone to him and said, ‘Look, Norman, I’m dying out here trying to sell these wholesome characters and phony mutts you’re painting,’ he would have smiled and painted me as an apple-cheeked nine-year-old with a patch on my corduroy knickers and innocence sticking out all over my cowlick. He was that insistent about refusing to see the world as it is instead of as it should be.”
Baker’s balance of affect and absurdity tinged American life for decades and colored the culture with wit through the best and worst of times. A natural humorist with a sharp eye for hypocrisy and tedious trend, Baker will be missed for his bold voice that uncovered the farce in everyday affairs.
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