William Kennedy’s introduction of Andy Rooney at his appearance at the New York State Writers Institute, September 15, 1995:
On page 14 of his new book, My War, Andy Rooney writes this sentence. “One of my dominating characteristics has always been that I’m not strange.” Now that’s a lie. Andy Rooney is as strange as charcoaled peaches or potato ice cream, which he invented. Oh sure, he looks normal, and you can understand every word he says and he’s a Giants fan. When I first met him I never suspected he was strange. We were at a dinner party in the penthouse of the Wellington Hotel, looking out at the South Mall, which was under construction, and we began swapping memories of Albany and the newsmen we knew and we realized we could carry on with these stories for years to come, and so we have. We’ve become friends. I have several strange friends.
Some of the things Andy and I had in common were Hagaman’s and Freihofer’s, the two most famous bakeries in Albany years ago. He didn’t like Hagaman’s much, and neither did I. We both liked Freihofer’s. We both went to a public school, he to School 14, which fell down, and I to School 20, which is still standing. We both remember our Albany childhoods vividly; he on Partridge Street in an upscale neighborhood that’s come to be called The Pine Hills and me in North Albany, which has always been called “The North End.” He remembers jumping from garage roof to garage roof when he was a kid. I remember jumping from box car to box car. We both grew to resent the mispronunciation of our city by outlanders. In his essay celebrating Albany’s tricentennial, Andy wrote this: “It is my unhappy duty to report to you, Albanians, that Albany is not on the rest of the world’s mind much. It has been my experience that at least half of those who have heard of the place pronounce it ‘Albaynee.’” And he’s absolutely correct. I’ve told people who perpetrate such pronunciation that if they repeat it, the police will escort them outside the city limits.
Andy and I both went to military high schools. Andy to Albany Academy and I to CBA: Christian Brothers Academy. We both loved our schools and both hated the military element that was a major part of them; but we both wound up in the Army probably profiting from having learned the manual of arms and how to take a rifle apart. In high school, Andy played on the Academy’s football team as a guard and tackle and also became captain of the team. I never played football, but I played match game pool in high school and was on the bowling team in college.
Andy reported in that tricentennial essay that his football coach was Eugene Carson Blake, who would become president of the National Council of Churches and general secretary of the World Council of Churches. In his book, Andy described him as an important Presbyterian. “Doctor Blake,” wrote Andy, “taught us several dirty things to do when playing the line. In a very sort of Christian way he advised us against using these tactics.” Perhaps this explains why CBA and not the Academy, was city champion the year I graduated. Andy and Doctor Blake’s subliminal Presbyterian tactics were long gone.
Andy and I worked for college publications and eventually we both became newsmen. We went to the army to become sergeants working for newspapers, both with Stars and Stripes, the famous military newspaper. Andy worked for Stripes during World War II, which I missed. I was drafted into the Korean War and went not to Korea but to Germany, and had my own newspaper in the 4th Division, but we printed the paper every week at the Stars and Stripes plant in Darmstadt.
Andy really covered war; I covered sports. He was a war correspondent for Stripes and his book is a memorable and lively account of what it was like doing that; sharing the safety of a stone wall in combat with that most famous correspondent, Ernest Hemingway, whom Andy didn’t like much, and finding out about counterfeit and self-aggrandizing war journalism. He quotes one reporter who described General Eisenhower’s solitary rumination the night before the D-Day invasion. “That evening,” the reporter wrote, “Ike went alone to his tent and sat dejectedly on the edge of his bunk. ‘No,’ Ike said to himself, ‘I cannot do that. I will not do that.’” This is the kind of reporting that sank the new journalism in the 1970s and Andy very properly asks that writer retrospectively the question that a skeptical radio comedian in the 1930s used to ask after listening to such a story; “Was you dere, Charlie?”
Andy also quotes a CBS correspondent who began a conversation with Harry Reasoner about the War by saying, “When Eisenhower and the Pope were in Rome with me…” As for Harry Reasoner, from 1962 to 1968 Andy wrote the words and produced the broadcast that Reasoner presented on camera. I suppose Reasoner was a nice, funny guy on his own but it’s like Jack Kennedy and Humphrey Bogart mouthing those great lines that made them famous and then you discover the lines were really written by some strange person nobody ever heard of.
After he parted company with Reasoner we all heard of Andy. He quit CBS in 1970 when they wanted to shorten his half hour program, An Essay on War. He won a Writers Guild Award for the same program when it was aired on WNET TV in New York. Because he couldn’t use Reasoner’s voice, Andy had to read the war essay himself, and the rest of the story is success without end. In all, Andy has won six Writers Guild Awards for TV documentaries and, since he joined 60 Minutes in 1972, he’s won three Emmys.
He and I were having dinner the other night and before dinner I was reading a book by Walter Lippmann, the dean of American political newspaper punditry for three decades. The book is A Preface to Morals, published in 1929 and Andy insists it’s one of the ten best books written in this century. I read further in it and revisited the wise and eloquent Lippmann who I remembered from his old stand on the old New York Herald Tribune’s editorial page, and I turned to the paragraph that smacked of Andy Rooney. Here’s Lippmann; “It is… impossible for the moralist to command. He can only persuade. To persuade he must show that the course of conduct he advocates is not an arbitrary pattern to which vitality must submit, but that which vitality itself would choose if it were clearly understood… The good, said the Greek moralist is ‘that which all things aim at’; we may perhaps take this to mean that the good is that which men would wish to do if they knew what they were doing.”
Andy Rooney has made a reputation suggesting that most people don’t know what they’re doing and that they live their lives with a reckless disregard for the good. Consider his recent, extremely gutsy newspaper column attacking Lawrence Tisch, the head of CBS, the TV network that employs Andy. He wrote that Tisch’s only interest in making a deal to sell CBS to Westinghouse was money. And I quote Andy, “He turned the best broadcasting company in the business into one of the weakest and got even richer in the process. Large parts of the company were sold off for cash profits that went to Tisch’s private company. It’s been better for him than it has for CBS stockholders.” And Andy ended with this kicker: “Larry Tisch is still my boss until CBS is officially sold to Westinghouse or someone else. He could fire me, but I’m part of what he’s selling and money means too much for him to do that.”
If you don’t think it’s strange for a newsman to write that, then you’re as strange as potato ice cream. Andy did another column recently about self-development. “I try to improve myself,” he wrote, “I try to lose weight. Weight is the most certain sign of defeat. I might think in optimistic moments that I’m getting to be a nicer guy. I might dream that after all these years I’m writing better than I used to. But when I step on the scale I can’t kid myself about my weight. I haven’t lost a pound. I conclude from this that I haven’t become a nicer guy or a better writer, either.”
The strangest thing about this is that Andy, who says he hasn’t changed his mind about anything since he was 23 years old, secretly keeps trying. Trying to be better, trying to be new. Listen to what Morley Safer said last Monday on 60 Minutes’ final summer rerun. “See us next week,” Morley said, “with three brand new stories and a brand new Andy Rooney.” So now, two days before that program airs Sunday on CBS, here, strange as it may seem, is the same old brand new Andy Rooney.