I was born in Memphis, and we lived in a four-bedroom house at 2408 Lamar in Bethel Grove, about three blocks from the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. It was a part of Lamar that’s gone lumpen-commercial and junky now, but back then, it was merely modest and primarily residential. Our house fronted the busy thoroughfare. The brick house next door — 2414 Lamar — was inhabited by Elvis Presley and his parents for about six months, just as Elvis was coming into prominence as a Sun Records artist.
My father, Charles Hillman Baker, was from New Albany, Mississippi, one of 12 or 13 children. By the time he reached maturity, the money in the family — once substantial — had run out, so he ended up in Memphis and became a traveling salesman for B.F. Goodrich. He was gone at least half the time, but occasionally I'd travel with him. So I got free B.F. Goodrich canvas shoes when I was a kid — and all the cool kids were wearing Keds!
My mother, Eva Mills Baker, was the core of the family. She was from Byhalia, Mississippi. She was the perfect Christian Madonna stereotype — and was until the day she died. She was a traditional homemaker — and a very good one. She went to work only after we kids were out of the nest.
I grew up a middle child — one brother older, one sister younger. We went to Bethel Grove Elementary School. My principal told me I should be a professor; my teachers told me I should be a writer. I enjoyed both school and writing. Not a lot of kids read the newspaper, but I did: the front page, editorial page — not just the funnies or the sports page. I read all of it.
Later, when I was 13, I threw papers for both The Commercial Appeal and the old Press-Scimitar, and that continued steering me toward being a journalist. As for politics, I was fascinated watching what was happening in the world — all the ballyhoo of politics, the conventions.
Back then, politics and politicians were a big deal. People didn't have instant news; you had to wait for a newspaper or for the scheduled television news report. When a senatorial or gubernatorial candidate came to town to campaign, it was a big deal. The entire community went to see and hear. Today, only press people turn out for those things. But I knew that politics was where the action was, and I was fascinated by it.
At Central High School, I still followed politics closely, and I had pretty much decided that journalism might be my pathway. My parents wanted me to go to college — not so much for the experience or for learning for its own sake, but because, "This is how you get ahead in the world."
I went to Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee–Knoxville, and Memphis State. Later, grad school at the University of Arkansas. At Vanderbilt, although I finished at the 100 percentile of the entrance exam — No. 1 on the verbal-aptitude part — the school was over my head financially and socially. UT was more relaxed, but Memphis State was the most affordable, and the commuter-school environment was comfortable. I graduated with an English degree.
There are only a couple of things you can do with an English degree: teach it or launch into journalism. I've done both.
I went to work for the Millington Star as a reporter in 1964. From there, to the Blytheville Courier News in 1966. It was a political year, and in addition to writing general features, I wrote about the Arkansas gubernatorial campaign. My writings quickly got the attention of both the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and the Pine Bluff Commercial. Both offered me a job, and I chose the Gazette, which was the major state newspaper at the time. I felt I had finally arrived in the big league.
In 1968, I became an aide and speechwriter for Frank Whitbeck, a Democrat in the gubernatorial campaign. When he lost the election, I was at a bit of a crossroads. I'd given up my newspaper job, and I was married to my first wife with a baby on the way — what do I do now?
I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arkansas. That was a time when you could get a decent loan — even a grant — from the government. We all lived pretty comfortably that first year. The second year, not as much! I was also freelancing with some political campaigns. In 1971, I got a job teaching English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The following year, I accepted a job teaching English at Memphis State.
I landed back into the political arena in 1982 when I was invited to take part in a congressional campaign in Little Rock. After the campaign, I became the staff aide to U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander in Washington. I thought it would be a glamorous job, which, off and on, it was — particularly when I got to work out of the Capitol, where the big boys were. But mainly it was grunt work. A mixed blessing.
I came back to Memphis in 1985 and found myself floundering a bit. Among other things, I worked for a longish spell at Thalhimer’s Department store selling shoes. Talk about hewing the wood and drawing the water!
In 1989, The Memphis Flyer launched. Ken Neill, the publisher, knew me from the pieces I'd written for Memphis Magazine, and I started doing freelance work for him. The following year, Ken asked me to write a weekly political column. It's the same column I write today. Other news organizations contacted me to do commentating and analytical work for them. Before I knew it, I had a career again.
I began making increasingly frequent appearances on various local TV stations and cable programs, and from mid 1994 to mid 1996, I was a regular, salaried commentator on WREG-TV News Channel 3. I have continued being something of a TV presence, and have been referred to on air by every local TV news channel as “our political analyst."
But what I'm doing right now is a very satisfying way of life. After 25 years in what amounts to Phase Two of my journalism career, I think I've made something of a reputation doing this. People expect me to do it, and I’m happy to oblige. As the old saying goes, "If the people find you can fiddle, then fiddle you must."
Hazards of being a political columnist include … The obvious hazard is that you get typecast as being of one persuasion or another. It's both easy and difficult to avoid that. It's difficult because people assume reporters are knee-jerk liberals; the antidote to that is just reporting what's out there. I've always tried to be fair-minded, search for the truth, and report it. That solves that dilemma.
The upside and downside of this job … Writing about and covering politics have some of the same advantages and disadvantages as working in politics. Folks think I have this big social life, but I'm just working. Last night, I had three places I had to be, and I could eat and drink all I wanted at all three of them. That's nice, but that lifestyle can also get very old, very fast. There's a lot of dead air, a lot of iron-butt stuff you have to do. To sit through a six-hour school-board meeting should be penance for mass murderers. People on the outside don't see the extent of the grunt work; they just see the glamour.
I choose what to write … I have the liberty — for the most part — of deciding what I do. I am no longer a general assignments reporter having people tell me what to cover. It's pretty obvious what I should be doing most of the time, and I get to pick and choose. I just try to be there first-est with the most-est, and with the things people need to know about politically.
I walk a fine line between … the Jackson Baker who gives a song and dance and Jackson Baker the reporter. I enjoy speaking to groups, and I enjoy "performing" when I'm given that chance. But when I'm on the job, I don't want to be on stage at all. I just want to be a fly on the wall, observing what's going on so I can write about it fairly and accurately. When I'm in a meeting, I can get uneasy when people call out to me from the dais or try to make me part of the action. To do what I'm tasked to do — which is to see a situation accurately — I need to be as invisible as possible.
The number of daily incoming communications I receive … Let's just say scores. The main task I have every week — week in and week out — is to fill the space in my column. So my filter is, "What should I focus on to fill that space? What's happening out there that should be in that space?" That helps me winnow down all the incoming communications I receive.
I'm always careful to … remain fair-minded and only report what I observe, what's there. Don't make anything up. Suppress any tendency to daydream about it, imagine it, make suppositions about it — try to see the world and what's happening in front of me without bias. I make a conscious effort to see whatever is taking place in the same way as the people I'm writing about. I try to describe what's happening totally from outside of myself as a person, accurately and objectively, from the outside in.
Making politicians angry … is the chance I have to take. I can't avoid that if I'm going to do my job right. I know I'll make people angry from time to time; I know I'm not going to do everything someone I'm friendly with wants me to do — and I couldn't do that! Again, I try very hard to see the world the way my subjects see it, and that helps keep me “fair and balanced.” But making politicians happy isn’t the idea, either. I keep things very simple: just report what's there and be fair.
If I were a politician, I'd be … president, of course! Or recording secretary for tools and maintenance.
I often wonder how politicians … handle the public aspect of their lives. They have no privacy. How do they cope with that? They can't walk outside without becoming a focus of attention. Hell, they can't even go to the restroom! And everything they say is crucial and will be analyzed and picked apart to death. And yet the other side of that constant attention has to be very gratifying to the ego.
One of the most surreal topics I covered … was the relationship between two of the most significant power figures of Memphis politics in the '90s: longtime Congressman Harold Ford Sr. and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. They were able to cooperate from time to time politically, but their enmity was natural, unforced, and based on more than simple rivalry. Getting quotes along the lines of, “If he’d said those things to my face, I’d have whipped his ass” (Herenton, about a tense telephone call with Ford) was a revelation that — beyond the demographics, issues, and facades of public life and political science — politicians are people, with the old Kundalini snake buried inside, and their basic decisions and attitudes come out of that. There ain’t no "surreal" in politics, really, or in life. The “real” is itself surreal when circumstances unbury it.
A political columnist's biggest challenge … is staying ahead of the competition — although having a formidable competitor who isn’t a knee-capper is actually enjoyable. It’s also important to maintain your relevance and not rest on your laurels. There’s a great danger in becoming too complacent, and you have to jolt yourself from time to time.
Social media … I enjoy it, although a lot of it is a waste of time. I'm not one of those people who stay on top of a Twitter feed all day long. It becomes too absorbing, too time-consuming, and too intrusive into the time I want to spend on other things. Still, social media is a valuable tool in terms of communicating quick information to a lot of people. When I cover County Commission meetings, for example, I often tweet parts of the action. Then, when I do a follow-up story, my tweets help me remember the high spots. I don't renounce social media; I'm just not fixated on it for its own sake.
Politics then vs. politics now … The pomp and circumstance aspect of it — people getting all excited and pumped up about politicians coming to town — you don't see that much today. Politicians no longer make speeches in town squares. Politics moved on to television and now to social media. Everyone has PR flacks working for them. But at its core, politics is politics, and it has not changed. You still have ambition on the line, still have people in those jobs realizing they have important tasks to perform that need to be reported on. That's not going to change. So the real important things about politics are the same as they were 10, 50, 100 years ago.
The year I was born … I’m somewhat coy about dating myself. Part of that is vanity, and part of it is just needing to blend into the prevailing milieu. But an important part is that I’m always looking ahead, not back. Historical memory is an advantage, but the present becoming the future — that’s where the job is.
Memphis vs. Nashville vs. DC … The political environment in Memphis is much more diffuse. Ironically, the tableau is wider for being more concerned with the ordinary. Many more moving parts. Nashville is pretty much fixated on state government. And on Capitol Hill in Washington? There’s definitely a press-pack mentality, a lot going on, and attitudes toward it tend to be standardized.
I first met Elvis Presley … shortly after he and his parents moved into the house next to ours on Lamar. That was their first house after moving out of the projects. Elvis was already a big noise locally. I was a teenager, and one afternoon, I walked into the hallway — and there stood Elvis Presley, on a call in the little telephone nook. The Presleys didn’t have their own phone service for some weeks, so they came over and used ours. Very modestly, he said, "Hi, I'm Elvis Presley," and held out his hand. I shook it. We made a little bit of small talk, and that was it. But he had this aura about him. One thing I've seen reported over and over — and this, I can attest, is true — is that no photo does him justice, because his aura was so intense. He was such a luminous being — that was the first thing you noticed. There was no mistaking it.
One of my prized memories … is being one of the first to hear the acetate of “Mystery Train” — that great song — coming out of the window of Elvis Presley's house.
I quickly discovered that politics … involves a lot more grunt work than people realize. The pageantry is what outsiders see, and the pageantry and excited crowds are much of what I saw as a kid. But in Washington, DC, I learned that the glamor content is very small compared to the grunt content — not only for aides like me, but even for the people we worked for, the household names themselves.
Meeting the Beatles … That happened at a press conference in 1966. They had come to Memphis on their final tour to play at the Mid-South Coliseum, and I was a reporter for the Blytheville Courier News. There was a big scandal going on at the time about John Lennon's comment, "We're more popular than Jesus now," and I had a chance to ask him about it. I got beatific smiles from the other three Beatles. Lennon had already transitioned from the Fab-Four persona into looking like the Witch of Endor. He was thoughtful and conflicted, still embarrassed by the furor over his quote. He doubled back on it so much that I didn't get a very clear or satisfactory answer to my question. What irony that here were Englishmen standing a religious test in a country that was founded by Englishmen looking for religious liberty.
Every good politician has … a driven ego. They have to have that to achieve even the more eleemosynary or public-minded aspects of what they do. When politicians do stupid things, it's typically because of that same driven ego.
I believe in …and am experienced with, the paranormal, the fourth dimension — call it what you will — where space and time are variable. It’s Einstein’s universe, not Newton’s. “Reality” and the hypothetical, even sometimes the impossible, are somewhat interchangeable and, in any case, mutually coexistent. For almost a decade — the mid ‘70s through mid ‘80s — I was involved with the Menninger Foundation of Topeka, Kansas, and a circle of consciousness researchers looking into things like that. But that’s a story for another time. Let’s just say that what we call “mystical” is just territory that hasn’t been scientifically charted yet. And maybe can’t be.
I have never … run for a political office, but I have worked in all kinds of political situations, from Memphis to Nashville to Washington, DC.
The number of trips I've made between Memphis and Nashville … Can't count them.
One of the politicians that intrigued me the most … Bill Clinton. And he still does so today. He remembers everyone, and he possesses a magnetism that, in my experience, no one else has. At the one-on-one level, he focuses on you intensely; he's not holding anything back. Everyone feels it, even political adversaries. It’s almost unearthly. The fact is, he seduces everybody — man, woman, and child.
The first U.S. president I met … I'll list them backwards: I shook hands with Barack Obama and George W. Bush. That was pretty much it with them. I’ve had real conversations with Clinton, whom I first knew in Arkansas — in fact, he recognizes me and will start up a conversation if he spots me in a crowd. Al Gore, who didn't become president, I know reasonably well, though he’s not a terribly accessible personality. I met George H.W. Bush and found him quite likeable. I never met Ronald Reagan, although I was on the floor of the House of Representatives once when he addressed a joint session. I’ve had a couple of pleasant journalistic exchanges with Jimmy Carter.
As an occasional panelist and interviewee on local television … I enjoy the opportunity to project my observations into the public sphere, and I relish a good conversation for its own sake.
Perks of this job include … entry into situations that are closed to most people, traveling to some cool places to cover news, and having conversations when I can ask about meaningful things with really influential people.
The most controversial thing I've done… was probably refusing to reveal sources to a grand jury. This was while I was a journalist at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. I broke a story about gambling-bill bribes being offered — and taken — in the Arkansas Legislature. A grand jury asked for my sources. Some I could give, and some I couldn’t. I told the grand jury that as a journalist, I could not ethically break a confidence. The presiding judge didn't think much of that and put me in jail.
One of my more dangerous assignments … In the early ‘80s, when I was working in Congress, I toured the Central American hot spots — not as a journalist but as a “fact finder” — and spent time with people like Tomas Borge Martinez (one of the Sandinista commandantes in Nicaragua) and Jose Napoleon Durarte Fuentes (candidate for president and later president of El Salvador) during the time of an insurrection there. I once had to flee the 20-odd miles from San Vincente to San Salvador in a car with Duarte and a slew of well-armed bodyguards, when a conversation we were having in his party secretary’s house was interrupted by what appeared to be a guerrilla raid.
Of the awards and honors I've received … I’m proudest of six first-place Green Eyeshade Awards, which are given out by The Society of Professional Journalists, recognizing the best journalism in the southeastern U.S. I've also placed second and third innumerable times. It's not the Nobel Prize, but I'm proud of them.
The public's biggest misperception about what I do ... Perhaps that writing a column is easy, that I snap my fingers and a column appears. There's a lot of work involved. Sometimes people tell me, "I wish I had your gift for writing." Perhaps I do have a gift in one sense, but the "gift" is really more about taking the shovel and digging until you've dug your ditch. It's really not easy at all.
My family … I married my current wife, Linda Young Baker, in 1989. Twenty-five years. We have two daughters. Julia is 24 and Rose is 22. I have two sons from my first marriage (to Carol Snowden, later Carol Morris), Marcus and Justin. They all have gifts, but none of them have precisely the same English/journalism/political bent as their dad. Good for them!
I have to fight the tendency to … over research. It's hard to stop! I keep finding more and more interesting things, and then suddenly, I think, "What am I going to do with all of this?"
The television shows I watch include … all the Sunday morning talk shows, "The Daily Show" (where my nephew Stewart Bailey was co-producer for a decade), "The Colbert Report," the network evening news show, all the local channels’ news shows, and ESPN. I also watch stuff like "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars," and "The Voice." I used to watch "American Idol," but it’s turned into "The Mickey Mouse Club." I can dance a little bit myself, by the way. My all-time favorite TV show, though, was "The Rockford Files."
The political resources I read include … an assortment of online blogs and RSS feeds. They vary from year to year. Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Humphrey on the Hill feed is good material. A major source, too, is the weekly Tennessee Journal, published in Nashville, a publication for which I am a contributing editor. It gives ultra-detailed information about state government and politics. Also, Time magazine, for which I used to be a stringer when there was an Atlanta bureau, and assorted other publications. As for my reading in general, I make it a practice to keep at least one book — and sometimes more — on standby for reading as time allows.
The political culture in Washington, DC … was a shock at first, but not in ways I expected. It's a hard-driving, cutthroat place where office politics are taken to a whole other level. There's nothing like office politics in Washington, DC. There are power struggles in every office — hell, there are power struggles at the service stations!
One of my pet peeves … is when someone at a meeting yells out, “Write that down, Jackson!” Excuse me! That’s <<my>> judgment call.
People might be surprised to learn that … I’m a pretty good pingpong player. Used to be, anyhow. I've got a pingpong table at home, and I just don't get enough use out of it. I am also a published poet with poems in some decent, refereed journals, such as Southern Poetry Review, Vanderbilt Poetry Review, Poetry Miscellany, and others. I also taught a course in the history of rock and roll at Memphis State University on multiple occasions.
My father's family … descends from the Bakers of New Albany. There's a street in New Albany called Baker Street that leads to the top of a hill where the family house was located until it burned down and was replaced by a school. At the foot of Baker Street is the cemetery devoted exclusively to members of the family. My grandfather founded the Bank of New Albany. That's the high side of my lineage.
The trait I got from my father … He was a little rough-going, preoccupied. He'd come in from the road very tired — and hard to deal with on that account. When he was not so tired and irascible, he was a very bright man — an ace at the bridge table — and I'd learn something from him. From him, I got my occasional irascibility! And a certain kind of smarts, I suppose. He sang, danced, and performed in minstrel shows way back in the day. Did I mention that I can dance a little?
The traits I get from my mother … the angelic side of me. Yes, it does exist! I'd like to believe that at heart, I have a good nature and a benevolent attitude toward mankind.
When I was young, I wanted to be … the Lone Ranger! I know, that makes no sense, and I even realized at the time that it was unrealistic. Beyond that, I wanted to be a baseball player. Unfortunately, fate did not endow me with all the right physical circumstances for that to work. Good reflexes, though.
The part of my job that requires the most stamina ... is meeting deadlines, particularly when news is breaking right on top of them. Writing is hard to begin with, but when you have to write a large piece when activities are coming at you fast, in a short period, during deadline — that requires enormous reserves.
My final 2 cents ... In all ways, try to get it right. Journalism gives you the opportunity to do that — and to be socially responsible — more than most jobs.