Russell Baker on Me & Mrs. Jones
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Tonight's show is about a gossip columnist for a London tabloid who's constantly under pressure to keep his readers scandalized. For column purposes, he is known as "Mrs. Jones."
When we meet Mrs. Jones tonight, he is under pressure to produce something juicy from the political front. Politics is not his territory, but there is an election in the offing, and someone important at his paper wants somebody ruined -- namely, the prime minister, who happens to be a woman. Mrs. Jones is expected to produce, or else. And though he knows nothing about the prime minister or politics, he heads straight to Downing Street in search of dirty doings.
You may be astonished by the ease with which a British newspaperman is able to wander through the prime minister's premises and plant tape recorders in the parlor. At a time when Washington is sealed tighter than Moscow under Stalin, it strains credulity to suppose that in London, security does not exist.
Never mind security. This is not a melodrama, but a fairy tale in the comic vein. You are only required to relax and suspend disbelief.
Now, Me & Mrs. Jones.
The American press now covers political sex scandals as lovingly as the British, but it wasn't always so. In the 1950s, during my time covering Washington, many a politician was as likely as the next citizen to be up to licentious deviltry -- but such affairs were never reported.
The code of the Washington correspondent held that love was a private matter. The few journalists who trafficked in gossip about it were viewed with contempt. This changed radically throughout the '60s and '70s after hostilities broke out between government and press. And today it's considered shameful that these newspaper old-timers failed to report fully on the sexual misconduct of our statesmen.
To correct the oversight, journalists have for years now been exhuming the sex lives of presidents, dead and living. As a result, we now know that people we once thought larger than life often behaved disgracefully when the heat of passion was on them.
Perhaps truly great statesmen cannot be diminished by such stuff. The Duke of Wellington, threatened once by a blackmailer, simply replied, "Publish and be damned."
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
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