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Coming of Age on a Dull Beat : THE GOOD TIMES by Russell Baker (William Morrow: $19.95; 352 pp.)

June 11, 1989|Robert Shogan | Shogan, The Times' national political correspondent, has been a member of the working press for nearly 35 years

In "Growing Up," New York Times columnist Russell Baker captivated countless readers and won the Pulitzer Prize by depicting his poignant coming of age in Baltimore in the years between the two world wars. In "The Good Times," Baker picks up the story of his life just about where he left off. He is out of college now, back from his wartime service in the Navy and just entering a career in journalism, the tribulations and triumphs of which--mostly the latter--over the next 15 years provide the grist for his autobiographical mill.

Some readers may find that this sequel lacks the emotional tug of the original. After all, the appeal of childhood is hard to match, even for so gifted a narrator as Baker. What "The Good Times" offers instead is an insider's view of modern American journalism that illuminates both the author and his trade.

The story is framed by Baker's struggles to keep faith with his creative spirit and fulfill his considerable promise. In a way, none of the obstacles he faced was more formidable than the indomitable pragmatism of his mother. With the death of his father when the author was still a youngster, she became the major force in his life and relentlessly prodded her son into exertions intended to advance his career. But in following her lead, Baker was not always true to himself. And at any rate, her obsession with success, shaped by the economic adversity that plagued her family, was apparently insatiable.

When Baker was just 29, the Baltimore Sun made him its White House correspondent, an achievement he proudly reported to his mother. He hoped for her approval, but he writes: "I should have known better."

"Well, Russ," she said, "if you work hard at this White House job you might be able to make something of yourself."

The irony was, that in taking the White House post and trying to meet the standards his mother had set for calibrating his professional progress, Baker had given up a job he had performed brilliantly and happily--as the Sun's London correspondent. It did not take him long on the prestigious treadmill of the White House beat, just as dreary back then in Dwight Eisenhower's day as it is now under George Bush, to realize his mistake. "I had swapped the freedom to roam one of the world's great cities and report whatever struck my fancy. And what had I got in return? A glamorous job which entitled me to sit in a confined space, listening to my colleagues breathe."

Baker's fundamental problem was that his natural talent for writing lucid, graceful prose, now so widely esteemed, was not initially perceived to be well suited to the needs of big-time journalism, with its high premium on so-called exclusives. "I had never been much interested in getting 'inside' information and scoops," he concedes. "Such stuff was important to a newspaper but it wasn't what I did well. On the Senate beat (for the New York Times which hired him away from the Sun) . . . I wanted to let readers know that the senators billed as titans of statesmanship were also human."

On the Senate beat, Baker had no difficulty uncovering evidence of human foibles. He was surrounded by celebrated politicians who tended to fawn upon journalists in hopes of promoting their ambitions. Baker found himself incessantly being stroked, literally and figuratively, by Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson who was eyeing a run for the presidency. But then Baker was told that during one supposedly intimate tete-a-tete in Johnson's office, L. B. J. sent a message to his secretary asking: "Who is this I'm talking to?"

"My vanity needed that blow," Baker writes, acknowledging that he had begun to believe these "terribly important people" talked to him because of his charm. "I needed to be reminded that they were not talking to me at all. They were talking to the 'New York Times.' "

Baker's narrative ends with his elevation in 1961 to Times columnist, "one of the gaudiest prizes in American journalism," as he notes. Yet for all the honors heaped upon his "Observer" column, Baker is not entirely satisfied with his accomplishments. He blames in part the relatively tranquil period in which he matured professionally, from 1947 to 1962, "The Good Times" of his title. "There were not many good stories to broaden a newsman and deepen the character," he laments.

Maybe so. But readers old enough to have lived through those years and also those young enough to have missed them will be grateful to this Observer for recapturing that era.

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