You Ever Wonder About Old Reporters?

Irreverent? I suppose. But I don’t think Andy Rooney would have minded too much. CBS announced the longtime 60 Minutes essayist has died at age 92. He seemed like a grumpy old guy when I was a kid, and I’m not a kid anymore.

He took a lot of ribbing over the years, particularly for his apparently left-field topics, often using small issues to make bigger points. (“You ever wonder about paperclips? Nowadays, they come with this plastic covering. I don’t know what that’s for. When I was growing up, we were happy with plain metal….”) That’s parody…but not too far from reality sometimes. I’d look forward to the left/right editorial counterpoints at the end of 60 Minutes, then feel let down when they’d announce there would be no counterpoint–just Andy Rooney’s commentary. It felt like getting stuck at the Thanksgiving table with that uncle who never stopped talking…except about some mysterious part of his past that no one wanted to talk about. You felt affection for him, but sometimes you wanted to get a word or two in.

In time, Rooney became a kind of institution, the way longtime columnists do. Like Mike Royko or Art Buchwald, it didn’t matter that their best work was behind as much as that they weere still there doing it. Rooney stepped down from 60 Minutes earlier this year, and I got that “uh-oh” feeling because I figured he was one of those guys who’d go out keeling over in the CBS lunchroom. When I heard he went into the hospital for surgery a couple of weeks ago, I could hear the curtain rustle.

He got it wrong sometimes (and he was honest enough to admit it…sometimes). He got it right too, even when it was pleasant to hear. But mostly, he just got it, said it, and left it up to you to do what you would with it. That’s admirable, as is that even if he occasionally apologized for what he said, he never apologized for being Andy Rooney.

Here’s something you might now know about him, and, like that uncle who won’t shut up (but has a past), it might add a little more depth to him. During World War II, Andy Rooney served as a reporter for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. He wrote about U.S. soldiers living and dying, and, in doing so, went where they went. Where they lived. Where they died. He rode along on a daylight bombing mission over Germany where one-third of the bombers never came back. He won the Bronze Star for covering the horrendous fighting around St. Lo, France, where the allies broke through the German lines after D-Day, beginning the end of the Third Reich. Like a lot of those guys, he didn’t talk about it much. At least not much in his commentaries. That just wasn’t the way it was done, and, besides, he had so much else to talk about. I’m sure if you asked him, straight out, he would have told you he’d been terrified and sickened by the war, and then he probably would have said he was lucky to be there. That’s not a soldier talking–that’s a newsman.

With time, I became more fond of him, even when sometimes you’d feel like, c’mon, Rooney…give it up and go plant some flowers or catch some trout. But he was a reporter (none of that fancy “journalist” stuff for him), and, obviously, he loved it. Even when he didn’t have much to say, he found an entertaining way to tell you: “Today, I got nothin’.”

Today, we got nothin’. Or at least a little less. And I think Rooney would be okay with that. Anyway, he’s going to have to be. And so are we.

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