Picks and Pans Review: The Good Times
07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
by Russell Baker
Fans of this memoir—and they should be legion—owe a debt to Baker's mother, a nag nonpareil who was largely responsible for steering him into journalism. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a quitter," she liked to tell her son, who grew up to be not a quitter but a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times writer. "Words ran in her family," Baker writes. "There seemed to be a word gene that passed down from her maternal grandfather.... Words were a way out. Words could take you all the way to New York City."
A sequel to Baker's 1982 book Growing Up, this volume tracks him from his days as a Baltimore newsboy to Times columnist—all the way to New York City. After Johns Hopkins University, where he was brought low by calculus and physics, Baker became a Baltimore Sun police reporter in 1947. Reared on stories of cousin Edwin, a Times managing editor, Baker expected to find glamour in the Sun newsroom. Instead he found copy editors of the green eyeshade stripe "smoking philosophically and brooding silently about whiskey, racehorses and commas." He also found higher-ranking editors who saw police reporters as "the lowest form of life in the Sun's universe. Titans like Swanson and Mr. Dorsey had no time for police reporters. Theirs was the world of foreign correspondents, war diplomacy, global catastrophe, national politics, presidents. They dealt with the great reporters, men who could tell them what the hell Truman was up to now."
The book's best parts deal with Baker's tenure as the Sun's man in London, where he came of age as a writer and simply came of age. Especially wonderful is a chapter on the Queen's coronation, to which Baker—wearing top hat, white tie and tails—carried his lunch, walking through London's teeming streets. "What delighted the crowd was the spectacle of a toff, a regular toff as I must have looked to them, brown-bagging his lunch to the coronation.... Triumphantly, I raised my lunch over my head and waved it to the crowd, and was washed with a thunder of cheering and applause that the great Astaire himself might have envied."
Almost as good are tales of Baker's days as the Times's Senate correspondent in Washington. Soon after he got the job, majority leader Lyndon Johnson phoned, proffering aid. "For you, Russ," promised LBJ, "I'd leak like a sieve."
The Good Times belabors such journalism minutiae as how John F. Kennedy manipulated reporters. It is, still, a terrific story of the days "when a young man, shameless enough to want to make something of himself, could still go to faraway places on the gifts of words." (Morrow, $19.95)