Russell Baker

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Russell Baker (August 14, 1925 – January 21, 2019) was an American writer best known as a newspaper columnist and author of memoirs on his life and times.


  • The cruel law of life is that a solved problem creates two new problems, and the best prescription for happy living is not to solve any more problems than you have to.
    • "The Big Problem Binge," The New York Times (1965-03-18)
  • In America, it is sport that is the opiate of the masses.
    • "The Muscular Opiate," The New York Times (1967-10-03)
  • People seem to enjoy things more when they know a lot of other people have been left out of the pleasure.
    • "The Sport of Counting Each Other Out" The New York Times (1967-11-02)
  • It seems to be a law of American life that whatever enriches us anywhere except in the wallet inevitably becomes uneconomic.
    • Letter to the editor [untitled], The New York Times (1968-03-24)
  • Inanimate objects can be classified scientifically into three major categories: those that don't work, those that break down and those that get lost.
    The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him, and the three major classifications are based on the method each object uses to achieve its purpose. As a general rule, any object capable of breaking down at the moment when it is most needed will do so.
    • "The Plot Against People," The New York Times (1968-06-18)
  • Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.
    • "The Fact About Progress," The New York Times (1970-02-24)
  • A group of politicians deciding to dump a President because his morals are bad is like the Mafia getting together to bump off the Godfather for not going to church on Sunday.
    • "The Morals Charge," The New York Times (1974-05-14)
  • A railroad station? That was sort of a primitive airport, only you didn't have to take a cab 20 miles out of town to reach it.
    • "Inside the Suit, a Man!," The New York Times (1986-11-05)
  • In America nothing dies easier than tradition.
    • "A Little Bones Trouble," The New York Times (1991-05-14)

So This Is Depravity (1980)[edit]

St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-92782-7. This is a collection of newspaper and magazine columns from 1973-1980

  • Being solemn has almost nothing to do with being serious, but on the other hand, you can't go on being adolescent forever, unless you are in the performing arts, and anyhow most people can't tell the difference. In fact, though Americans talk a great deal about the virtue of being serious, they generally prefer people who are solemn over people who are serious.
    In politics, the rare candidate who is serious, like Adlai Stevenson, is easily overwhelmed by one who is solemn, like General Eisenhower. This is probably because it is hard for most people to recognize seriousness, which is rare, especially in politics, but comfortable to endorse solemnity, which is as commonplace as jogging.
    Jogging is solemn. Poker is serious. Once you grasp that distinction, you are on your way to enlightenment.
    • "Why Being Serious Is Hard" (p.17)
  • The best thing about being President is that it gets you out of American life. I don't know what the theory is behind this, but it is a fact. The first thing we do with a President is shunt him off to a siding where nothing American can ever happen to him.
    • "The President's Plumbing" (p.19)
  • We watched some of the movie. It was shocking. Sex is apparently hard labor. Various persons supported crushing weights in agonizing positions for what seemed like endless blocks of time. Exhausted men grunted and toiled like movers trying to get a refrigerator into a fifth floor walk-up.
    • "So This Is Depravity" (p.25)
  • Some years back, all the best people came to bipartisan agreement that the most shameful thing a person could do with power was not to use it.
    Since then everybody who wants to get ahead in Washington has made a great show of being a fierce fellow when left alone in the room with a little power. There seems to be a fear that if there is somebody around so low that it is all right to dump the garbage on him, and you hesitate, everybody will call you a sissy, and you will never be invited to lunch with Professor Kissinger.
    Strange values result. Great killers are esteemed for good citizenship. "Not afraid to use power," people say of them.
    • "Cultivated Killing" (p.33)
  • I went to the Rayburn Building the other day on trifling business. It was an appalling experience. I had forgotten how preposterous the thing is with its pretentious megatonnage of rock and steel spreading acre after acre down the slope of Capitol Hill in sullen defiance to eternity and man.
    It dwarfs the forum of the Caesars. Mussolini would have wept in envy.
    Inside, one is compelled to dwell upon the insignificance of humanity. Not a single tiny wisp of beauty, nothing that is graceful, or charming, or eccentric, or human presents itself to the senses. Trying to imagine Clay and Webster in this celebration to the death of the spirit, erected to the glory that was Congress, is an exercise in comic despair.
    What do we have? Banks of stainless-steel elevators. Miracles of plumbing. Corridors of cemetery marble stretching to far horizons under the most artificial light millions of dollars can create, a light that abides no shadow, grants no privacy, tolerates nothing that is interesting in the slightest degree.
    Occasionally a small figure appeared in the distance, grew larger, then larger, then assumed human proportion, then passed and became smaller, and smaller, and smaller. Two ants had passed in a pyramid.
    • "Moods of Washington" (p.36)
  • No less a philosopher than Chief Justice Burger was outraged by Ellsberg's publication of classified documents. They belonged to the Government, Burger reasoned, and Ellsberg had no more right to give them to the people than he would have to filch another man's property off a taxicab seat.
    The Government, of course, commonly leaks classified documents when it deems publication convenient to manipulate public opinion to its advantage. Only the Government, it seems, has a legal right to manipulate opinion with hot documents.
    • "Moods of Washington" (p.38)
  • Americans don't like plain talk anymore. Nowadays they like fat talk. Show them a lean, plain word that cuts to the bone and watch them lard it with thick greasy syllables front and back until it wheezes and gasps for breath as it comes lumbering down upon some poor threadbare sentence like a sack of iron on a swayback horse.
    "Facilitate" is typical of the case. A generation ago only sissies and bureaucrats would have said "facilitate" in public. Nowadays we are a nation of "facilitate" utterers.
    "Facilitate" is nothing more than a gout-ridden, overstuffed "ease." Why has "ease" fallen into disuse among us? It is a lovely little bright snake of a word which comes hissing quietly off the tongue and carries us on, without fuss and French horns, to the object which is being eased.
    This is English at its very best. Easing is not one of the great events of life; it does not call for Beethoven; it is not an idea to get drunk on, to wallow in, to engage in multiple oleaginous syllabification until it becomes a pompous ass of a word like "facilitate."
    • "American Fat" (p.44)
  • Long words, fat talk — they may tell us something about ourselves. Has the passion for fat in the language increased as self-confidence has waned?
    • "American Fat" (p.46)
  • Can't-do guys do all right in Washington, perhaps because lobbying is the one thing that can't-do guys almost always can do, and magnificently. Detroit may not be able to dispose of exhaust very neatly, but it can build a beautiful lobbying machine for selling Government the story of its own inadequacy.
    What is it in the Washington air that restores the energies of these once dynamic American manufacturers? Something there is that brings out all the latent half-forgotten ingenuity that seems to have abandoned them back in the home plant.
    • "The Can't-Do Guys" (p.47)
  • Americans treat history like a cookbook. Whenever they are uncertain what to do next, they turn to history and look up the proper recipe, invariably designated "the lesson of history."
    • "All Right, Jerry, Drop the Cookbook" (p.47)
  • Urban people, of course, are terribly scared nowadays. They may yearn for society, but it is risky to go around talking to strangers, for a lot of reasons, one being that people are so accustomed not to have many human contacts that they are afraid they may find out they really prefer life that way.
    • "Small Kicks in Superland" (p.56)
  • Watergate left Washington a city ravaged by honesty.
    • "Honestly" (p.69)
  • The odd thing is not that we are in the business of overthrowing other people's governments, but that we can still be surprised when somebody reminds us of it. In Asia, in Latin America, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East we have been propping up and knocking down governments more or less openly for the past twenty-five years.
    It is an established policy. Everybody knows it. It is supposed to be done covertly, which is only sensible if you hope to succeed since publicity in matters of this sort can only make the natives restless and defeat the project. Imagine the chauvinistic rallying around President Nixon that would have occurred if Canada, say, had announced that her agents were going to destabilize United States society so that discontented Americans could heave the Nixon Administration out of office.
    • "Our Uncle Is Now Dorian Sam" (p.93)
  • Old people at the supermarket make you wonder about all those middle-aged people you see jogging the streets to preserve their vascular systems for another fifty years.
    And about all the people of all ages all over the country who are eating less, drinking less, smoking less, driving safer and in general looking for a death-proof safety suit to get them over the peak years and down into the valley of old age fit to enjoy the fruits of their abstention and labor.
    Will anybody care when they get there?
    Will they be able to afford an orange?
    • "The Aged, Shopping" (p.96)
  • I frankly admit to not knowing who I am. This is why I refuse to buy clothes that will tell people who I want them to think I am.
    • "Talking Clothes" (p.109)
  • This may be why New Yorkers instinctively avoid making eye contact with each other in crowded places, why they "look right through you," as dismayed visitors often complain. They are not looking right through you at all; they are discreetly avoiding an intrusion into your space. They sense the danger in a place where a one-degree temperature rise can mean an explosion.
    • "Spaced In" (p.120)
  • Early in life, most of us probably observe an unhappy relationship between labor and wealth — to wit, the heavier the labor, the less the wealth.
    The man doing heavy manual work makes less than the man who makes a machine work for him, and this man makes less than the man sitting at a desk. The really rich people, the kind who go around on yachts and collect old books and new wives, do no labor at all.
    The economic reasons for dividing the money this way are clear enough. One, it has always been done that way; and two, it's too hard to change at this late date. But the puzzling question is why, since the money is parceled out on this principle, young people are constantly being pummeled to take up a life of labor.
    In any sensible world, the young would be told they could labor if they wanted to, but warned that if they did so it would cost them.
    • "Lost Labor Love" (p.170)
  • The Government cannot afford to have a country made up entirely of rich people, because rich people pay so little tax that the Government would quickly go bankrupt. This is why Government men always tell us that labor is man's noblest calling. Government needs labor to pay its upkeep.
    • "Lost Labor Love" (p.172)
  • The young cult of sociology, needing a language, invented one. There are many dead languages, but the sociologists' is the only language that was dead at birth.
    • "Come Back, Dizzy" (p.187)
  • While it is very sturdy of comfortable men to point out that life is unfair, the people it is unfair to are not apt to be morally or philosophically elevated by the announcement.
    If you are going to preach that unfairness is inescapable for some, good sense suggests that you also accept the inevitability of beastly behavior by people who have to carry the burden.
    • "The Unfairness of It All" (p.193)
  • I am unclear what a "role model" is, but those who used the term seemed to be saying that teachers are people children tend to emulate. In any event, many Miamians must have thought their children would become homosexual if subjected to homosexual teachers.
    That prompted me to ponder teachers I haven't seen, and scarcely thought about, for decades, and for the first time I reflected on how their sex lives had affected my own. My first thought was that it was curious, perhaps perverse, that I have not turned out to be a spinster.
    • "Role Models" (p.202)
  • There is no business like show business, Irving Berlin once proclaimed, and thirty years ago he may have been right, but not anymore. Nowadays almost every business is like show business, including politics, which has become more like show business than show business is.
    • "The Face Game" (p.215)
  • By any precise definition, Washington is a city of advanced depravity. There one meets and dines with the truly great killers of the age, but only the quirkily fastidious are offended, for the killers are urbane and learned gentlemen who discuss their work with wit and charm and know which tool to use on the escargots.
    On New York's East Side one occasionally meets a person so palpably evil as to be fascinatingly irresistible. There is a smell of power and danger on these people, and one may be horrified, exhilarated, disgusted or mesmerized by the awful possibilities they suggest, but never simply depressed.
    Depression comes in the presence of depravity that makes no pretense about itself, a kind of depravity that says, "You and I, we are base, ugly, tasteless, cruel and beastly; let's admit it and have a good wallow."
    That is how Times Square speaks. And not only Times Square. Few cities in the country lack the same amenities. Pornography, prostitution, massage parlors, hard-core movies, narcotics dealers — all seem to be inescapable and permanent results of an enlightened view of liberty which has expanded the American's right to choose his own method of shaping a life.
    Granted such freedom, it was probably inevitable that many of us would yield to the worst instincts, and many do, and not only in New York. Most cities, however, are able to keep the evidence out of the center of town. Under a rock, as it were. In New York, a concatenation of economics, shifting real estate values and subway lines has worked to turn the rock over and put the show on display in the middle of town.
    What used to be called "The Crossroads of the World" is now a sprawling testament to the dreariness which liberty can produce when it permits people with no taste whatever to enjoy the same right to depravity as the elegant classes.
    • "Cheesy" (p.231)
  • All politicians are humble, and seldom let you forget it. They go around the country boasting about their humility. They are proud of their humility. Many are downright arrogant about their humility and insist that it qualifies them to be President.
    • "The Big Town" (p.283)
  • One may speculate whether the contemporary idea of American society in decay is not a false notion which has been created, at least partially, by this old movie portrait of a society that was once stable, orderly and governed by the immutable justice of the Hollywood censorship code.
    This is the ever-popular myth of a golden age which persuades so many generations that there was once a wonderful moment in the past when the world was sound and good people ruled and evil was justly punished. After Camelot came chaos and despair, except, of course, that Camelot never existed, any more than the world portrayed by those old Hollywood films existed.
    • "Golden Oldies" (p.293)

There's a Country in My Cellar (1990)[edit]

William Morrow and Company, ISBN 0-380-71451-5. This is a collection of newspaper and magazine columns from 1963 to 1989

  • Of all the people insistently expressing their mental vacuity, none has a better excuse for an empty head than the newspaperman: If he pauses to restock his brain, he invites onrushing headlines to trample him flat.
    • "Introduction" (p.14)
  • You talk a great deal about building a better world for your children, but when you are young you can no more envision a world inherited by your children than you can conceive of dying. The society you mold, you mold for yourself.
    It was this way with my generation. We were unhappy with what we inherited and we tried to reshape it in ways that would make it more tolerable to us. You were not uppermost in our thoughts.
    Now, in middle age, some of us are trying to rewrite history. Some of us tell you, "We labored and dared and sacrificed — all for you — yet we hear no thanks."
    You will not be unduly moved, I hope, by these laments. They are sentimental cries from persons so attached to the society they have rebuilt that they cannot bear the thought of seeing it overhauled by new proprietors.
    • "The Becoming Looseness of Doom" (p.79)
  • The old notion that brevity is the essence of wit has succumbed to the modern idea that tedium is the essence of quality.
    • "Getting on with It" (p.103)
  • In televisionland we are all sophisticated enough now to realize that every statistic has an equal and opposite statistic somewhere in the universe. It is not a candidate's favorite statistic per se that engages us, but the assurance with which he can use it.
    We are testing the candidates for self-confidence, for "Presidentiality" in statistical bombardment. It doesn't really matter if their statistics be homemade. What settles the business is the cool with which they are dropped.
    And so, as the second half hour treads the decimaled path toward the third hour, we become aware of being locked in a tacit conspiracy with the candidates. We know their statistics go to nothing of importance, and they know we know, and we know they know we know.
    There is total but unspoken agreement that the "debate," the arguments which are being mustered here, are of only the slightest importance.
    As in some primitive ritual, we all agree — candidates and onlookers — to pretend we are involved in a debate, although the real exercise is a test of style and manners. Which of the competitors can better execute the intricate maneuvers prescribed by a largely irrelevant ritual?
    This accounts for the curious lack of passion in both performers. Even when Ford accuses Carter of inconsistency, it is done in a flat, emotionless, game-playing style. The delivery has the tuneless ring of an old press release from the Republican National Committee. Just so, when Carter has an opportunity to set pulses pounding by denouncing the Nixon pardon, he dances delicately around the invitation like a maiden skirting a bog.
    We judge that both men judge us to be drained of desire for passion in public life, to be looking for Presidents who are cool and noninflammable. They present themselves as passionless technocrats using an English singularly devoid of poetry, metaphor and even coherent forthright declaration.
    Caught up in the conspiracy, we watch their coolness with fine technical understanding and, in the final half hour, begin asking each other for technical judgments. How well is Carter exploiting the event to improve our image of him? Is Ford's television manner sufficiently self-confident to make us sense him as "Presidential"?
    It is quite extraordinary. Here we are, fully aware that we are being manipulated by image projectionists, yet happily asking ourselves how obligingly we are submitting to the manipulation. It is as though a rat running a maze were more interested in the psychologist's charts on his behavior than in getting the cheese at the goal line.
    • "And All of Us So Cool" (p.340)
  • President Reagan brought us to the ultimate: America As Total Television. During his governance the printed word simply ceased to matter. White House dynamos had once telephoned newspapers to complain about unfair reporting. Not anymore. Now they telephoned network bosses. Even then it wasn't poor reporting they complained about, but poor pictures.
    A network reporter who thought her report on shortcomings in Reaganland would anger the President's cadres was amazed when the man in charge of propaganda thanked her for doing them a good turn. But, she said, that was a tough piece of reporting.
    Oh, the words may have been, said the gentleman, but on television words didn't matter. What mattered were pictures. And the pictures had been wonderful.
    • "'Star Wars' Mania" (p.346)
  • Most English speakers do not have the writer's short fuse about seeing or hearing their language brutalized. This is the main reason, I suspect, that English is becoming the world's universal tongue: English-speaking natives don't care how badly others speak English as long as they speak it. French, once considered likely to become the world's lingua franca, has lost popularity because those who are born speaking it reject this liberal attitude and become depressed, insulted or insufferable when their language is ill used.
    • "Introduction to 'We're Losing Contact, Captain'" (p.353)
  • Life seemed to be an educator's practical joke in which you spent the first half learning and the second half learning that everything you learned in the first half was wrong.
    • "Back to the Dump" (p.414)

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