Russell Baker is a former columnist and correspondent for The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun. His books include The Good Times, Growing Up, and Looking Back.

A Very Wretched Relationship

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, New York City, 1957
As a greenhorn in the White House press corps in 1954, one of the first rules I learned was not to speak truth to strangers about the president’s smile. That smile, so warm, so irresistibly friendly, was part of the genial image that made Dwight Eisenhower a figure admired, in …

Visitors

A deer seen through a kitchen window; photograph by Rebecca Norris Webb from her new book My Dakota, an elegy to her brother and her home state of South Dakota. It is published by Radius Books.
Glancing out the kitchen window one sunny afternoon not long ago, I was startled to see two beautiful red foxes copulating in the garden. It was not the unabashed sexual display that was remarkable. Mating must be routine exercise out there, judging by the frequency with which brand-new rabbits can be seen eating the lawn, but foxes are another matter. This is an in-town garden at a well-trafficked intersection two blocks from the county courthouse, definitely not a fox-friendly location. A single fox doing nothing at all on this turf would be a newsworthy sight; two foxes engaged in propagating the species would seem to border on the unthinkable.

The Master of Hate

J. Edgar Hoover with President Nixon at an FBI Academy graduation ceremony held at the White House, May 1969. Hoover named Nixon an honorary member of the FBI.
Fear of the evil foreigner seems to be an ever-present poison in American politics, and it was running higher than usual in 1917 when young J. Edgar Hoover took his first job at the Justice Department. It is a fear that flourishes most dangerously when whooped up by politicians too …

Smiley Wins Again

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the BBC miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1979
Early in the cold war Soviet intelligence had an agent named Kim Philby embedded in the hierarchy of the British secret services. Philby was an Englishman of good pedigree (an important asset in London espionage circles) but troublesome habits (hard drinker, a bit too charming with women, including other men’s …

Overgrown Boys

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson at the World Series, October 4, 1942
Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character …

Secrets of the Keeper of Secrets

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI. from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.

Anarchists & Capitalists

The assassination of William McKinley, from Le Petit Journal, Paris, September 22, 1901
A skillful playwright might have a good time with the story of the assassination of President William McKinley, and especially with the three most flamboyant political figures involved: Mark Hanna, Theodore Roosevelt, and Emma Goldman. All three were enemies of one another, all three were formidable political personalities, each had …

The Charms of Eleanor

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York, November 1940
In 1918, during the fourteenth year of their marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt, age thirty-three, discovered that Franklin, age thirty-six, was in love with her young social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Long afterward, Eleanor told her friend Joseph Lash that the discovery was devastating, that the bottom seemed to have dropped out of her life. Yet as her subsequent history persuasively testifies, it was also her liberating moment, a life-changing event that opened a world of glorious possibilities for a woman not too timid to explore them.

The Real Reagan

Sooner or later all who write about Ronald Reagan find themselves at grips with a puzzle. His son Ron (the name he uses as author of this memoir) is no exception. Though he has had a longer and more intimate relationship with Reagan than most people, at the age of …

A Genius for Contempt

The material that H.L. Mencken published in a series of six volumes under the title Prejudices was a collection of his journalism written between 1914 and the late 1920s. Most of it, he told a good friend on publication of the first volume in 1919, was “light stuff” with an …

Decline But Not Fall

The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee leaving US District Court after winning a ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, 1971
Eugene Meyer, a Wall Street plutocrat with an itch to perform in the nation’s capital, bought The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. The price was $825,000, but the paper was so far decayed that Meyer had to keep dipping into his own capital for the next ten …

A Bad Morning at The New York Times

Gerald Boyd, the managing editor of The New York Times, and Howell Raines, the executive editor, on their way to a meeting about the Jayson Blair scandal, New York City, May 14, 2003
Lovers of newspaper gossip will find Gerald Boyd’s book delightfully indiscreet about self-serving treacheries hatched in the New York Times newsroom. Times folk, especially of the management class, will not be delighted by his account of their awkward struggle with the race problem, or his suggestion that bigotry was one of the causes of his downfall.

Ted

Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Washington, D.C., February 1958
In the house of Joseph P. Kennedy, training for success began in early childhood with deep immersion in the competitive way of life. Competition was what led to achievement in America: such at least was the Kennedy theory, and Joseph P. Kennedy was determined that his children, all nine of …

A Heroic Historian on Heroes

Yves Montand and Simone Signoret as John and Elizabeth Proctor in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater, Paris, 1955
The European invasion of North America began in earnest when Columbus, searching for Asia, blundered into the Caribbean. The newcomers, mostly Spanish, English, and French, found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people whose primitive technology was hopelessly inferior to the Europeans’. In the limitless and unspoiled …

A Revolutionary President

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, secretary of labor during Roosevelt’s administration and the first woman ever to serve in the US cabinet, circa 1943
Few expected very much of Franklin Roosevelt on Inauguration Day in 1933. Like Barack Obama seventy-six years later, he was succeeding a failed Republican president, and Americans had voted for change. What that change might be Roosevelt never clearly said, probably because he himself didn’t know. Herbert Hoover, the departing …

How They Blew Up the L.A. Times

During the half-century between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, class warfare in the United States was always robust, usually ferocious, and often homicidal. Since the moneyed class controlled most of the heavy weapons—courts, state militias, municipal police forces, banks, newspapers, governors, senators, and often even the presidency—it won most of the …

Not So Dangerous Liaisons

Two of Bill Patten’s three fathers were Alfred Duff Cooper and Joseph Alsop. What memoirist could ask for more? Duff and Joe, as they were known in the international set of their day, now seem like characters from an Evelyn Waugh novel about the batty doings of the very best …

Condi and the Boys

American foreign policy had still not recovered from its victory over communism when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice took over at the White House in 2001. The incomparable American war machine, deprived of the enemy it had been designed to fight, was a colossus without a mission, and the …

The Conservative Betrayed

As a syndicated columnist, Robert Novak has specialized for the past forty-five years in the inside-Washington branch of political news reporting. To the casual newspaper reader it may seem a delightful job: expense-account lunches with movers and shakers, getting to know famous rascals, gleaning the secrets of mysterious “sources” whose …

Goodbye to Newspapers?

The American press has the blues. Too many authorities have assured it that its days are numbered, too many good newspapers are in ruins. It has lost too much public respect. Courts that once treated it like a sleeping tiger now taunt it with insolent subpoenas and put in jail …

Reconstructing Ronald Reagan

Of the seventeen presidents the United States has survived since Theodore Roosevelt declined his third term, none is so mystifying as Ronald Reagan. A New Deal Democrat until the age of fifty, he became the most revered Republican of his generation; a child of the working class, he inspired business …

The Wealth of Loneliness

Why Andrew Mellon started buying so many fine paintings in his old age we can only guess, for he was not one to talk about the inner man. Maybe the lifelong loneliness in which he had wrapped himself finally became unbearable and the paintings provided a desperately needed sense of …

Glimpses

Let Me Finish puts me in mind of an elderly, rather distinguished-looking man rummaging in a trunk full of old snapshots. It is not clear what he is looking for. Maybe he is not looking for anything at all. Sometimes it is simply pleasurable to visit bygone times. But if …

Talking It Up

Underlying this code of good manners is the assumption that good conversation is not a lecture, a performance, a diatribe, a sermon, a negotiation, a cross-examination, a confession, a challenge, a display of learning, an oral history, or a proclamation of personal opinion. And herein lies the great difficulty with …

Baker’s ‘World’

Their book offers a kaleidoscopic tour through an ebullient moment in American history when the country was emerging from the shadowy gaslight age and bursting into the glare of the modern. It is a big, lush, coffee-table-size book suffused with gaiety and the optimism of an age blissfully unaware of …

The Entertainer

William F. Cody was a frontier go-getter who was good with horses and mules and good to look at. Until show-business hokum turned him into Buffalo Bill there was nothing about him to suggest he would ever amount to anything very special. Youthful energy and readiness to gallop off on …

Fathers and Son

When Joseph Lelyveld was six years old it occurred to him that he was less important to his parents than he wanted to be, that they might even think him a nuisance. That summer—it was 1943—he found himself living with a farm family of Seventh-Day Adventists in rural Nebraska. Though …