Every December, there’s this strange event in New York City called the Pennsylvania Society weekend, in which a few hundred of the state’s politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, and wannabees converge on the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and a few other venues for two days of nonstop parties, receptions and fundraisers.
My favorite part of the weekend is Friday night when a bunch of us journalists break off from the pack and gather for a dinner at an East Side restaurant. I enjoy few things more than listening to beat reporters trade stories, and my favorite storyteller of the bunch is John Baer.
Baer is an longtime friend who was my colleague when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News. He’s the son of a state Capitol reporter, and he’s spent a career covering the halls of power in Pennsylvania and the political campaigns that get people there.
Baer has been a columnist for years now, and is so tough on the state’s political elite that one editor at the paper used to refer to him only as “Snarly.”
But he’s also respected. He’s regularly called upon to moderate debates in major races because candidates and their operatives know he’ll be informed and pointed, but fair.
Baer hasn’t died or retired, though most governors have at times wished both upon him. I bring him up here because he’s assembled some of his stories in a book called “On the Front Lines of Pennsylvania Politics: Twenty-Five Years of Keystone Reporting.”
I lived through most of the events Baer describes in his book, but there are plenty of stories in there I’d forgotten and many I’d never heard.
I particularly enjoyed him recounting his one tour of duty inside a campaign, when he was the spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Scranton in 1986. Scranton, who’d been something of a hippie in his youth, was worried about what kind of attack ads might be coming his way.
So he came up with the brilliant idea of putting out an ad denouncing negative campaigning, and pledging to cease all negative advertising. The move got national praise and his poll numbers rose. Then one day, 600,000 pieces of mail savagely attacking Scranton’s opponent somehow got mailed, despite the pledge.
Baer writes: “…an AP reporter calls and asks if our all-positive pledge extended to direct mail. Such a question drew the only possible response. S * * t.”
If you want a Baer sampler, he’ll be on WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane today at 10 a.m., repeated tonight at 10.