Monday, December 20, 2010

A Few Minutes About Andy Rooney

Over the past few days I've been engaged in a facebook discussion-thread about the ongoing usefulness (or not) of Andy Rooney and his weekly comment at the conclusion of Sixty Minutes. I of course had my own immediate thoughts on the subject, but the deeper the discussion went the more inclined I was to think a little more carefully, and to that extent a little more comprehensively, about the man, the career, and the present usefulness of both.

To begin with I read his Wikipedia page -- and found it significantly more interesting than Andy Rooney himself typically is, at least lately. Born on January 14th of 1919, he graduated from Colgate and was promptly and summarily drafted in the early summer of 1941, whence he became a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, and, the following year, one of the only six non-combatants to fly in the very first U.S. bombing raid over Germany. He has later admitted that he was in those days opposed to the U.S. involvement in World War Two (as were a lot of other people in the early stages -- most of them ironically Republicans, who used to be full-throated isolationists instead of hypocritically saving their xenophobic bigotry for neighbors a little closer to home).

The compelling bit here is that his view of the war apparently was changed by the sight of a concentration camp -- interesting because the camp in question would have to have been liberated, implying that many of the turgid and jingoistic pieces he'd written about our gallant fighting men would have to have been things he didn't himself believe. That he did it so well is the sort of cornerstone-of-reputation that many writers continue cashing with mediocre nonsense for the entire rest of their lives.

He was hired to work for CBS in 1949. That's not a typo. He's had the same employer -- at least in terms of the principal conduit for his celebrity -- since the early days of the Truman administration. That he thinks of himself primarily as a syndicated columnist and a television personality on the side, serves as a sort of "all-you-need-to-know" comment about the man's personality: proof on a sample of one of his peculiar and yet maddeningly simple formula for success, bringing a no-nonsense tone and diction to what would otherwise be a silly and pointless-sounding denial of anything he himself finds disingenuous or exasperating, from child-proof pill bottles to the nation's preference for weekly television comments over syndicated columns.

It is of course this unique recipe that, in earlier days, earned him such high regard from so many corners of the often fickle and ambiguous vox populi americanus. His "Three Minutes or So With Andy Rooney" was devised in 1978 as a summer break for the then-wildly-popular "Point/Counterpoint" segment that had always run at the end of Sixty Minutes, but Rooney's commentaries became such an instant smash-hit over those three months that he was granted the space on alternating weeks for the following season, and the season after that the network dropped Point/Counterpoint altogether.

In the years since, he has aimed the fire-hose of his withering lack of patience at everything from the burning city of our pointless and ginned-up invasion of Iraq ("Someone, I guess it's President Bush, has to tell us what we're doing there; I don't think any of us know"), to the burning building of scandalously under-engineered car bumpers ("these days car bumpers don't protect anything except the profit margins of automobile parts suppliers"), to the incense candle of the feminine preference for a shoulder bag ("does every woman in the world *really* need a small suitcase to carry around with her wherever she goes?").

My personal favorite segment of all the countless thousands he's done -- and nearly everyone you ask would have one, and nearly everyone's would be different from everyone else's -- was his eulogy for Harry Reasoner, after Reasoner had died of lung cancer. Yes, he waxed choky-hyperbolic: he ran a clip of a previous segment he'd done about the word superstar ("of the four regular correspondents at Sixty Minutes, two are and two aren't"), but the most affecting moment of the piece, and for me of Rooney's entire television career, was when he explained that Reasoner had already had one of his lungs removed from the consequences of smoking, and still could not bring himself to quit. And here, at least, the recipe he used to talk about how this made him feel was something a lot more familiar, at least to those of us who've lost someone close to us from smoking -- anger at the person for not quitting, mixed 2:3 with anger at the cigarette companies for designing a product it would be that impossible to quit.

In the years since, Rooney has committed several important and lasting transgressions against an evolving popular consciousness that he has seemed almost willfully incapable of evolving *with*. His first major kerfuffle came in 1990, when he lumped-in "too many homosexual unions" on a list of over-indulgences that could cause premature death. He was suspended without pay, more-or-less "of course," but the real tragedy for Rooney's legacy, if not his career, is that Sixty Minutes' ratings fell so far and so sharply that the network abruptly ended Rooney's suspension prematurely, thus arming the previously apolitical Rooney with a lack of circumspection about his unique capacity to hurt people with his words.

Since almost the very moment of his quietly sanctimonious reinstatement he has displayed an inability to sense when his own opinions are about to diverge far enough from the common norms of social discourse to cause a problem. In 1994 he complained bitterly that the death of Watergate mastermind and Cambodia-bomber Richard Nixon had somehow been "overshadowed" by the suicide of Nirvana lead-singer Kurt Cobain (even though Cobain's death had done no such thing, and even though, let's face it, it probably *should* have). Since then has mused that depression sufferers might benefit from swapping their copious remaining years of life for his less copious ones, and more recently said, about Major League baseball, "I know Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig; these days all the players seem to be named Rodriguez," the latter an especially difficult car-crash to watch him drive himself into, since this is after all the same man who in 1948 was arrested for sitting at the back of a segregated bus.

So, yes, it's easy to dismiss the man as a sore-headed, homophobic old coot with an enthrallingly comprehensive lack of empathy, precisely because that's what he's become in these last few years -- but he's also just about the only television commentator who went public with a total lack of concern over the Monica Lewinsky affair from the very beginning. He is also one of the few people at CBS who dared to point out that Dan Rather was reading what had been placed in front of him regarding the '04 Bush / National Guard scandal (and to that extent that the persons really responsible for crashing the bogus story had gotten off scot-free). His dispatch of Mel Gibson in re The Passion of the Christ is a pretty big deposit in the bank-of-good-faith, at least to me.

His atheism -- which is supposed to have come to light in 2008 -- has been utterly self-evident to those of us who've been retaining his comments on the subject over the years, dating at least as far back as an interview he did with Tim Russert in the mid-1990s, whereupon Russert asked Rooney what happens when we die and Rooney, without hesitation or fanfare, responded, "nothing." If anything has come to light more recently, it is his total lack of patience for the role of organized religion in polarizing a credulous public, again not without room for admiration on our parts. I guess the point here is that he still has a lot of friends. He deserves them.

All of that being said, he's also about to turn ninety-two years old, and, worse, he is one of a literally dying breed of great men for whom the signature event in their lives rendered them largely unable to put the past in the past and move on. And this, in the end, is the under-exposed angle of this matter: Not knowing who Kurt Cobain is, or why anyone should have wept at the news of his suicide, is if anything a poor barometer on just how out-of-touch a person in his situation can be. The man's not out-of-touch because he doesn't know who Kurt Cobain is; he's out of touch because, given not only his age but his peculiar experiences, he can these days be nothing else.

To try to give this a little perspective, I set out to make a list of all the things that have happened in this world just since Mr. Rooney turned thirty years old, in January of 1949, and which by that measure we might reasonably expect Rooney to think of in some way or other as "new." By the time I was done the list was even longer than this column, but here is just a smattering of the wide galaxy of human events that Rooney is left with no choice other than to think of as mere interrogatives in the broad arc of history.

The first Boeing 747 made its maiden flight when Andy Rooney was already forty-four years old. The first moon-landing happened when he was fifty. When the first Space Shuttle lifted off, Rooney was sixty-one, and when the Challenger exploded, he was sixty-seven. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched when Rooney was seventy-two, and by the time the Columbia disintegrated on reentry, he was eighty-three years old. JFK was shot in Dallas when Andy Rooney was nearing his forty-fifth birthday. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated when Rooney was forty-nine. When the Munich Olympics slayings took place, Rooney was fifty-three. The Jonestown massacre happened when he was fifty-six. Oklahoma City happened when he was seventy-three, and at the time of Columbine he was seventy-nine.

When Elvis Presley played the Ed Sullivan show, Andy Rooney was forty-four years old. Nixon's trip to China happened when Rooney was fifty-three, and the fall of Saigon happened when he was fifty-six. When the Cosby Show debuted, Rooney was sixty-five, and when the first episode of The Simpsons followed-suit, he was already seventy-four. Andy Rooney hasn't just lived, but can no doubt actively recollect, a world without wireless telephones, personal computers, battery-operated radios, imported Japanese cars, and even Interstate Highways. The high-bypass turbofan (jet) engine was perfected for commercial use when Rooney was already thirty-eight years old. When synthetic rubber came along, he was thirty-one. I could, it would seem, go on and on and on.

None of this is automatically to suggest that Rooney should be banished without further cause from his position near the pinnacle of popular comment. Or perhaps it is. Hegemonic rules of thumb, as Mr. Rooney himself knows only too well, have a nettlesome way of being also uncomfortably valid. (This is, after all, how they become hegemony in the first place.) The test then becomes whether the hegemonic rule in question is fair or not. Forcing blacks to sit at the back of a bus is unfair -- so much so that the hegemonic rule merits confrontation by protest, leading to arrest. But easing to the sidelines of opinion leadership a person whose own sense of the contemporary is irretrievably out of date is, alas, not. After all, for contemporary opinion leadership to function in society's best interests, it must first of all be *contemporary*.

This is the reason that Mr. Rooney must now resign or be gently excused from both his syndicated column and his segment at the end of Sixty Minutes -- not because of any particular thing he has said or admitted he fails to appreciate, but for all the things that his years alone prevent him from saying, or appreciating, that the rest of us need to hear from the hegemony-stripping curmudgeons who fill our Sunday evenings with thoughtful tropes about the absurdity of the world around us. When the curmudgeon himself becomes the absurd, it would seem, the spell is broken and the exercise no longer benefits the world being commented upon. And the sad truth that Rooney represents behind his hand-made desk is that years alone are enough to effect that very result.

Dave O'Gorman
"The Key Grip"
Gainesville, Florida.


zot said...

Commprehensive. More so than Tracey:

Do you wish to separate what he's seen from the question of whether he should continue to be seen?

Dave O'Gorman said...

That observation, Zot, went largely over my head -- as per usual! ;-)