Corruption, glad-handing, back-stabbing: These are a few of political columnist John Baer’s favorite things. Not that he’s necessarily happy, per se, that Pennsylvania politics is brimming with such seedy characters, or that residents so often get the short end of a very rotten stick, or that conditions are such that he calls the state “The Land of Low Expectations.” What makes him happy is that he is there to cover the ups and downs of Pennsylvania’s public servants and savants.
Baer is one of those old-school columnists who breaks down the news by making each point ring like a gunshot, then slides a sweet little daisy of a last sentence into the muzzle as the smoke clears.
His new book, On the Front Lines of Pennsylvania Politics: 25 Years of Keystone Reporting, is based on his 25 years reporting on Harrisburg for the Philadelphia Daily News. Baer has covered it all, from soup to nuts (that’s Milton Shapp and Gov. Corbett, to me and you). Along the way, we meet a young politician named Rick Santorum, too far-right for his own good even back then; James Cah-ville coming up through the ranks while managing the campaign of former Gov. Bob Casey; Sen. Pat “it’s not a” Toomey; and sundry insiders under the big top in Harrisburg. PW recently caught up with Baer to get as much on, and then off, the record as we could.
It’s clear you take politics seriously enough to dedicate your life to recording it, yet you obviously enjoy mocking it so. Were you ever optimistic about Pennsylvania politics?
I think every journalist is basically optimistic, because why else would you spend your time trying to tell people stuff? Anybody who covers politics and government hopes that both of them get better. But along the way, you point out what’s wrong.
How do you walk the tightrope between access and honesty? You’re a ball-breaker who still always manages to get a good quote.
That’s a great question—I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. I think … the answer has to do with the longevity. There are very few people that are new to Pennsylvania. The people who rise in Pennsylvania politics almost always have been in politics for years before they got to where they end up, and at some point, I’ve interviewed them, put in time with them, got to know them along the way, so that when they get to be governor or U.S. senator, we already have a relationship, even if they might loathe some of the things I’ve written, they still talk to me. Especially as a columnist, that’s a little dangerous. Every quote that they give me is fewer words than I can say about them. So it’s in their interest.
You’ve brought up longevity. What’s the impact of the shrinkage of traditional political media look like from your point of view?
It’s really dangerous to democracy. I don’t have to tell you how badly the shrinkage has been, even in my newspaper, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and everywhere. The Capitol newsroom in Pennsylvania is half of what it was in terms of reporters from other newspapers, and the less attention is paid to a culture like Pennsylvania politics, the longer that culture can provide for itself rather than for the people it’s supposed to serve. State government is a powerful force in people’s lives even though it doesn’t get a lot of attention, and the more we take journalism away from it, the worse it will become.
Have you ever gotten so disgusted that you considered giving it up?
I never considered giving it up and doing something different, but the recent [Jerry] Sandusky case was pretty revolting. I remember being viscerally outraged when they announced the details of the presentment against them. Politically, I guess I’d say the 2005 legislative pay grab done in the middle of the night without a word of debate … it was Pennsylvania politics at its worst. It was outright theft. I spent literally the next couple of months searching for every adjective I could find [to define] how horrible what these people were doing was.
So were you actually surprised by the Sandusky charges? They say rumors
circulated the area for years.
Totally surprised. I have friends … who were longtime Penn State season ticket holders, and they follow Penn State football as a religion. After the fact, they admitted hearing rumors in the ’90s about the first incident that was investigated and not prosecuted. But in terms of politics, I had never heard any politicians even suggest it.
How has the vibe changed since Corbett came to town?
It is different in many ways. It’s certainly different in the way the governor’s office is run and the way the governor is presented or, in Corbett’s case, not presented to the public. But … after a sweeping investigation like Corbett conducted as the attorney general, resulting in I think its eight leaders, not just members, there’s a couple of dozen members, but eight legislative leaders, people in positions of real authority, after something like that it has to be some inward-looking saying, “We better not do the kinds of thing were used to doing.” And I’ve experienced it. If you call an incumbent who has been running for office on their legislative office line, they’ll say, “I’ll call you back on my personal cell.” So they at least want to give the appearance of not mixing politics and government—which, in a way, it’s a little hokey. Government is politics. It’s a stretch to say the two aren’t on parallel tracks.
So what’s next? Picking out a snazzy
tie for the Pennsylvania Society this weekend?
Sadly, yes. Talk about Groundhog Day. I mean, that is just a horrible weekend for anyone my age because it literally is the same people year after year, and you say the same things, but … you do get a sense of what people are thinking of politically because you get them all in one place.
Wait! The actual book. How did it come together?
About a year ago [around] this time, I would tell a couple of stories and a number of people would say, “You really ought to write a book.” And then when we got into 2012, and I realized, my god, I’ve been with this newspaper 25 years … so the two things just came together. I started looking into old files, and found some [columns] that I forgot that were pretty amusing.
John Baer’s On the Front Lines of Pennsylvania Politics: 25 Years of Keystone Reporting is available on Amazon and in bookstores.