The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald P. Baker, who chronicled Va. politics for The Post, dies at 90

The longtime Richmond bureau chief broke news about Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Chuck Robb. He was also featured in ‘A Perfect Candidate,’ a documentary about Virginia’s 1994 U.S. Senate race.

Donald P. Baker was a Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post. (Family photo)
7 min

Donald P. Baker, a wry and grizzled Washington Post reporter who served as the paper’s longtime bureau chief in Richmond, chronicling the rise of the country’s first Black elected governor, L. Douglas Wilder, as well as the bitter 1994 Senate race between Oliver North and Charles S. Robb, died Dec. 25 at an assisted-living center in Bethesda, Md. He was 90.

The cause was not immediately known, said his daughter Lisa Baker.

Mr. Baker, a West Virginia native with twinkling eyes and a scraggly beard, was The Post’s Richmond bureau chief from 1985 until his retirement in 1999. For much of that period he was considered the dean of the Richmond press corps, known for his tough, aggressive questioning and for his shambling style, which led friends to liken him to Columbo.

“You could easily underestimate him, and you did it to your detriment,” said his former Post colleague Peter Baker, now the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. (The two Bakers were not related.) Another former colleague, John F. Harris, the founding editor of Politico, said that Mr. Baker “didn’t have an abrasive manner, but he was blunt and direct and free of artifice.”

“His interest was above all in the human dimension — he wanted to know what made politicians tick,” Harris added in an email. “He delighted in the ways their pious or self-important personas collided with their real-world scheming and dealmaking.”

Mr. Baker came to prominence in the state capital partly through his tireless reporting on Wilder, a grandson of enslaved people who served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor before being elected governor in 1989. Weeks earlier, Mr. Baker had published an unauthorized biography of the politician, “Wilder: Hold Fast to Dreams,” that recounted his early years — including a stint waiting tables at segregated restaurants in Richmond — as well as his struggles as a trial lawyer and his clashes with fellow Democrats.

In a phone interview, Wilder said that Mr. Baker was one of the first journalists “who took the time to try to understand what made me think I could win” statewide office in Virginia, a former bastion of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South. “The Bakers of the world will be sorely missed,” he added. “That breed of inquiring and daring, asking the tough questions — and fair questions — is needed today in the American political arena.”

Mr. Baker’s old-school approach to newspaper journalism was on full display in the 1996 documentary “A Perfect Candidate,” which looked back on the 1994 Senate race between North, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was under fire for his role in the Iran-contra affair, and the incumbent Robb, a former Virginia governor who overcame damaging reports about his personal life to win reelection.

Directed by David Van Taylor and R.J. Cutler (who chronicled Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign as a producer of “The War Room”), the documentary used Mr. Baker as a stand-in for the audience, seeking to get straight answers from the candidates and to make sense of an election that one voter described as a choice between two evils, “the flu or the mumps.”

The publicity-shy Mr. Baker said he was reluctant at first to be featured in the film, preferring to remain outside the story. “A lot of time when I thought they ought to have the camera on Ollie or Chuck, they’d have it on me,” he told Post journalist Marc Fisher for a 1996 article. But he developed a friendship with the filmmakers and eventually agreed to cooperate, albeit while steadfastly refusing to wear a microphone. (“I wasn’t going to do something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do in my job,” he said.)

The resulting footage presented Mr. Baker as a disillusioned romantic, reflecting not just on the Senate race but also on politics in general. “Over the years, I’ve admired different politicians,” he said while driving down a street, searching for the right words, “but then they’ve always done something to lose my admiration. So, if the question is, who’s the last politician I still admire?” He paused for a while, then added, “Oh, I don’t know.”

The documentary received an Emmy nomination after it aired on PBS, and Mr. Baker went on to roam far beyond the Virginia Capitol, taking a break from state politics to cover the 1996 presidential campaign of H. Ross Perot, the independent Texas billionaire. A year later he traveled south, reporting on the murder of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami Beach and on the World Series victory of the Florida Marlins.

Even as his reporting took him far from Richmond, he always returned to his home on Monument Avenue, where he mentored reporters including Baker, Harris, Mike Allen, Spencer S. Hsu and Gregory S. Schneider while hosting events that included an annual Easter parade viewing party on the front porch. Nearby were several monuments to Confederate leaders, which Mr. Baker came to view as symbols of the state’s Jim Crow past. When they were taken down in the wake of the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, Mr. Baker was thrilled.

“The longer we lived here,” he told Harris in an interview that year, “the more they offended me.”

The older of two sons, Donald Parks Baker was born in Wheeling, W.Va., in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on Nov. 20, 1932. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a hospital maintenance engineer.

Mr. Baker studied journalism at the West Virginia Institute of Technology in Beckley, and after graduating in 1954 was hired as a reporter at the Daily Record in Wooster, Ohio. He later worked at the Courier & Press of Evansville, Ind., where in 1958 he met his future wife, Nancy Cottrell, while reporting a story at a beauty salon where she worked as a stylist. They married the next year, and she died in 2021.

Survivors include two daughters, Lisa Baker of Brooklyn and Amanda Baker of Canton, Ohio; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Baker worked at the Indianapolis Times and the Cleveland Press before coming to The Post, where he started out covering local news and Maryland politics, including corruption allegations against Gov. Marvin Mandel. He was also a leader of The Post Guild — he was elected chairman of the newspaper’s union unit in 1976, near the end of an extraordinarily divisive pressmen’s strike — and taught journalism at schools including American University, the University of Maryland and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Colleagues recalled that Mr. Baker sometimes showed an independent streak while talking with his subjects, including at a news conference in Virginia where he asked a question with what Harris described as “a kind of irreverent, honking air.”

“The person holding the conference responded that the news conference was restricted to members of the media,” Harris continued. “‘I am the media, buster!’ Don shot back. It was an immortal line, and at his retirement party buttons were distributed with Don’s face and the phrase.”