I wanted to write for the local press an appreciation of the life of American humorist Russell Baker, who died a few weeks ago at age 93. But I didn’t have a local angle.

A local angle, as anyone knows who has tried getting a letter to the editor published, makes all the difference to editors trying to decide what news and opinion gets published and what doesn’t. Editors are universally ingrained with the notion that the closer to home, the more appealing the story. Maine readers of a Maine newspaper, for example, are far less likely to read a story headlined “50,000 Bangladeshis swept away by tidal wave” than one headlined “Wiscasset man escapes injury in Bangladesh.”

That’s called “news judgment,” and I wasn’t about to ignore it – not if I wanted to do right by Russell Baker. So, I scoured a half-dozen of his books and the internet for a Maine connection. No luck. He seemed to parcel out his time over the years in haunts like Virginia, Maryland, New York, Washington, D.C., and even London, but seemed uncannily absent from Maine.

I’d have to figure out another local angle, so I read randomly from his oeuvre – a word he’d have left alone – and found places where he seemed to be talking directly to Mainers. I found this introduction to winter from his classic “Poor Russell’s Almanac”:

“One snow in a winter is happiness. Two snows are too many. Three snows are a penance visited upon cities that are unjust. Wise is the man who goes to Yucatan after the first snow for he shall escape the ravages of dipsomania, self-pity and misanthropy, and his shoes shall not be ruined.”

Baker’s local angle, inferentially, is that most Mainers are either wise snowbirds in Yucatan or nasty drunks with ruined shoes.

Maybe that’s stretching too far for a local angle, and, I confess, maybe he wasn’t talking about Maine at all. Here’s another insight for February from the “Almanac” that might, or might not, be applicable to Maine: “WHAT! Both Monday and February can occur on the same day?”

Such inspired nonsense is best enjoyed sitting up in bed reading Baker aloud over a pitcher of martinis, a drink that recurs in his journalism career from his early days covering cops in Baltimore. It’s also a colorless drink that lends itself to snorting out your nostrils when you get to the funny parts.

New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker poses in his office at the New York Times in 1983. Baker died Monday at the age of 93 from complications after a fall.

But it wasn’t all funny parts. His “Observer” columns for The New York Times could be acerbic in describing the political machinations of his day, prompting him famously to remark that he’d grown tired of covering Washington by waiting for politicians to emerge from meeting rooms to lie to him.

He also did his bit to subvert the sacred cult of “objective journalism” by introducing his own judgments in his news writing rather than slavishly recording the bloviations of the mighty. He said in his second memoir, “The Good Times”: “No matter how dull, stupid, unfair, vicious, or mendacious they might be, the utterances of the great were to be reported deadpan, with nary a hint that the speaker might be a bore, a dunce, a brute, or a habitual liar.”

And this was decades before Donald Trump’s ascent to power.

Baker’s manner was disarming. Despite his hardscrabble boyhood and youth, his two Pulitzers and other accolades, he always came across as approachable, kind and ever-civilized. I’m convinced his well-modulated public delivery and lack of pomposity got him his job introducing “Masterpiece Theater” for more than a decade, succeeding Alistair Cooke.

He wrote and talked in simple and direct English, and he didn’t lie, probably not much anyway. We need more of him.

He was a writer’s writer. He started with the notion that he would follow the Hemingway route: Do journalism for a few years and then write great novels thereafter. But he stayed in journalism because he concluded it was more difficult to write a novel than to write 30 columns. And, after all, the journalist gets paid every week, maybe, and it’s still writing.

Lots of people in Maine write or want to write. Perhaps they are the best local angle for a piece on Russell Baker.

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