Russell Baker’s Rack of Wisdon

What the distinguished columnist can teach us about Nevada

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

Russell Baker,  my journalistic idol and my favorite writer, turned 90 on August 14.

After a distinguished reporting career, Baker wrote the “Observer” column for The New York Times for more than 36 years. He’s published two volumes of memoirs (including a Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Growing Up), a compilation of his book reviews , and five collections of his columns, among other things. He’s a liberal who calls out the many follies of liberalism, and he could make the English language dance. What more could he offer?

Well, a few Bakerisms are useful for figuring out the madhouse of Nevada politics, and the current national scene:

⇐ “Politigabble.” Baker described this as a “strange tongue” requiring translation into English. For example, “Now, I am going to be perfectly honest about this” means, “Oh, no, I’m not.” He did all this before Assemblywoman Michele Fiore came  along and referred to her “va jay jay,” which makes no sense in any language. But when she and her allies claim their effort to repeal a tax increase should be called the “We Decide Coalition,” when the issue already has been decided (by more than two-thirds of Nevada Legislature), please know that whatever they are saying is probably untrue.

⇐ “School vs. Education.” A 1975 column mulling the increased popularity of testing schoolchildren prompted this conclusion: “The former student’s destiny fulfilled, his life rich with Oriental carpets, rare porcelain and full bank accounts, he may one day find himself with the leisure and the inclination to open a book with a curious mind, and start to become educated.” Four decades later, we are still overdoing student testing and letting its results determine whether teachers keep their jobs, and Nevadans are trumpeting or lamenting that they have finally thrown a little money at the problem. Now, if they can just further disembowel teachers, everything will be fine.

⇐ “The Great Mentioner.” Late in 1963, Baker detected the presence of someone who magically “mentioned” someone for president and, lo and behold, he (or she) would be taken seriously. This drollery leads to two points. One, there once was a political establishment, and it had a way of rooting out candidates who had no business wasting our time and attention (hello, Donald Trump). Two, that establishment didn’t always work: In the next race after Baker’s column, the GOP establishment couldn’t keep out Barry Goldwater—who then seemed like a right-wing lunatic and now seems redolent of liberalism—but it did temper the pool of candidates. Today, the Republican “establishment” candidate is Jeb Bush, who thinks Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton started the Iraq war—a sign that we need some better Mentioners.

⇐ “There is no longer much fresh air blowing through the political columns, but a great deal of deadly dull inside-baseball stuff that sounds like Washington insiders talking among themselves. The healthy income of top Washington-based political writers may also have an effect. For those with a foot or two in television, the income is very healthy indeed …. Self-interest almost always begets a little prudence.” Baker once reviewed a collection of Paul Krugman columns, noting that the economist wasn’t a Capitol insider and didn’t join a journalistic pack. It’s a useful reminder to readers, whether they are perusing newspapers, blogs, Twitter feeds or even this column, that all of us have biases and should be taken with a grain of salt, and that we should take the same grain for ourselves.

⇐ “We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.” No comment, except this: Remember it.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.