Time to get back to basics, back to Buchwald

By Bruce Johnson/Contributor

(Published Jan. 26, 2007, 9:38 a.m.)

New York Times Video: Art Buchwald's last word.
With the the death of Art Buchwald The New York Times launched a new project called The Last Word, a collection of video interviews of notable personalities before their death. launch video

Ten months ago, when columnist Art Buchwald entered a hospice with a prognosis that he would live three weeks, I thought it time to reflect on this political commentator and satirist whose, as one reporter described it, "amiable and wry brand of wit" made us feel better about government and those frustrating politicians who kept feeding Buchwald's art it s rich material.

The essay that resulted got lost amid my manuscripts.

Art Buchwald defied the odds by living to write another book and his column for almost another year.

But on Jan. 17, the inevitable occurred--Buchwald died at age 81.

The following is the piece I wrote last spring:

Time to get back to basics, back to Buchwald.

While assembling the contents of a box of books to sell or give away, I included two of Art Buchwald's collections, 'While Reagan Slept' and 'You Can Fool All of the People All the Time,' columns written during the Reagan years.

I've had a number of his collections over the years and have read three or four. But when one of your favorite communicators is not carried by the local dailies, it's easy to lose the connection. I have found it rather odd that the three city dailies I read, at least one of them, do not run the Pulitzer Prize winner's work. After all, his columns have appeared in over 500 newspapers worldwide. Not since retirement from teaching have I had regular access to Buchwald wit. Then it was the Washington Post where his column originates.

The other evening while watching the 'Jim Lehrer News Hour,' a segment appeared about Buchwald's experience in a hospice where he is living out his days. The 81-year-old has decided not to submit to kidney dialysis.

He was delighted that family, friends, colleagues and the French government have been bestowing all kinds of good things upon him. The French ambassador was shown placing one of its prestigious medals around his neck. Buchwald began his journalism career in Paris in 1948.

In the second half of the segment he was interviewed. Having lost none of his mental vigor and sense of humor in his 80 years, it made me wonder why he has to give up this precious talent when the essential tools are obviously still functioning. The report said he had done two columns the week before and one during the current week.

As soon as the interview was over, before doing anything else, I rescued the two books from eviction. One of them is the Pulitzer collection. Shame on me.

What makes Art Buchwald an effective social commentator? First of all, he is funny. In a column about his French years he wrote, "I always got along with the French. I once asked a French friend, 'Why do the French dislike Americans?' He said, 'The French don't like each other, so why should they like you?'"

Next, the man has heart and also a stiletto urge to puncture the high and mighty. He knows how to penetrate the innards of problems and the people who have them. Then he works outward through the mazes, the contradictions and the puzzles of motivations. In the process he manages a fine balance between the heart and the urge. In the preface of 'Beating Around the Bush,' his latest collection of columns, he suggests, "There are no bad guys in Washington, there are only good guys doing bad things."

At the heart of Art's art is his ability to say things that are utterly common but seasoned with elements that surprise, contradict or send the reader off on unexpected excursions.

Accompanying Buchwald's latest collection is the following from the Library Journal: "Buchwald is a pitiless chronicler of human folly, particularly as it manifests itself in public officials; the targets of his satire are pretension, inconsistency and hypocrisy. He makes his readers laugh out loud, then leaves them wondering whether what they laughed at might not equally well have made them weep."

Born in 1925, Art Buchwald was a Depression child. He never saw his mother. His father did not connect very well. His three siblings were older sisters. He spent his childhood in a Seventh Day Adventist shelter, New York's Hebrew Orphan Asylum and several foster homes, all before he was 15.

In his autobiographical 'Leaving Home,' he says, "I must have been 6 or 7 years old and terribly lonely and confused, when I said something like, 'This stinks. I'm going to become a humorist.'" By the way, reading his words means more if you have heard his voice.

The last choice in the hierarchy of vocations you would expect to see Art Buchwald is the armed services. But he was reaching draft eligibility at a time when every male faced the prospect of military service. Not only was he in service, he was a Marine. He writes, "At 17 I was young, I was unhappy and most of all I was undisciplined. The Marine Corps was the right service in the right place at the right time."

But you have to read the chapter, "The Marine Recruit," in 'Leaving Home' to understand Private Buchwald's dilemma. Even I, who weathered two periods of basic training (Navy 1945 and Army 1951), find it difficult to understand how he survived.

His drill instructor was Corporal Pete Bonardi, who "was the toughest, meanest, ...," sorry, I can't use those words here.

But as the service often does for males, it makes men out of them. It also makes enduring relationships. "I began to realize that the Marine Corps was the first father figure I had ever known," Buchward writes. "From early morning to late at night they took care of all my needs. It was a love-hate relationship, as many father-son ones are. I mentioned this to a master sergeant who said, "50 percent of all recruits coming through here feel the same way."

By the way, Buchwald would end up with lifelong respect for the DI who had made his life so difficult. The touching exchange near the end of Bonardi's life released some of those "weeps." The respect turned out to be mutual.

If ever there were a self-made man, Art Buchwald is he, having earned the hard way the right to be the universal humorist, satirist and social commentator that he is. In a column called, "Four-lettered Words and More," he demonstrated a disdain for entertainers who depend on expletives to get laughs.

"Cable TV has been a boon for writers because the F-word has made it easier for them to write a script. Every time one of the characters has nothing to say the writer gives them a cuss word." That speaks volumes about contemporary entertainment (and education).

Clearly Buchwald has a social conscience. In the preface to 'Beating Around the Bush' he reflects on the dilemma we face in the Middle East. "I also deal with the Iraq War. It is not my position that it was a good war or a bad war, a just war or an unjust war, a smart war or the dumbest war we have ever gotten into. My position is that it is the only war we've got, so we have to support it."

I have missed the zestful, savvy Buchwald all these years, but I'm making up for lost time. And I wish, Monsieur Buchwald, you had more of it.

I wish we could travel some more on this journalistic junket. Again comes that human, even-handed attitude of mind, "Whether it's the best of times for the worst of times, it's the only time we've got."


The author is a retired English teacher from Badger High School.



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