The Course of Words

The Irreplaceable Art Buchwald

Copyright 2006 Ben S. Pollock

Now, there’s any number of articles about one of my heroes, Art Buchwald. Here is one, written by a friend, just a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Buchwald is dying, by choice. He’s well past 80, and his body is shutting down, he knows it and is refusing treatment. The federal government is so pro-choice about hospice that Medicare pays 100 percent.

Seeing maybe two minutes of him interviewed on Sunday’s This Week made me wonder, who among the key demographic will know who this is? ABC’s George Stephanopoulos did little more than say “famous,” “funny” and “columnist.” I’ve got more room, but I won’t do any better. Not that it won’t stop this Brick from flying.

Art made stuff up. If you go to Billions of Books in a Barn, you will see some of his 30-odd volumes still and not just the bargain aisles. Kid, if you go through them, I admit, they haven’t aged well. Even then, you’ll need to know your Vietnam, your Watergate, your Jimmy Carter in a canoe, to understand, even if you don’t laugh.

But a lack of timelessness does not render Buchwald irrelevant. You may be one who never “got” Monty Python, but if you’re decent, you allow that Brits and certain of your dorm buddies simply have a different sensitivity. Use that same bridge to go back in time instead. There’ll you’ll find Buchwald. You’ll see what he was up to. His essays will become classic when schools go back to teaching history where kids have to memorize facts.

Art made stuff up. Today that gets you fired from newspapers and cable news, even if you’re a columnist, where that still supposedly means opinion, comment, analysis, and all of the tools of persuasion.

To the tools of the persuasive essay, Art and others (I try sometimes) added narrative technique. Yes, dialogue, plot, pacing and characterization. These are the tools of New Journalism, almost never practiced well in newspapers, just magazines and books, because New Journalism novelizing requires wordiness. Yet Art’s limit was about 600 words a pop. He did it.

Art made stuff up. In this century, Buchwald (Opinions to Columns & Blogs to Arts & Living at wrote how he went to a D.C. disco to talk to young people about President Bush. The man had a stroke years ago. Readers — his readers — knew without being told by a paranoid disclaimer that Art got nowhere close to a club or to those partiers. They didn’t exist and didn’t need to.

My earliest memories are reading him in the defunct Arkansas Gazette. For all I recall, he might have claimed to have interviewed the fellow running the microphones at the Sam Ervin-Howard Baker Senate hearings about the socks everyone wore. I remember Art waving a cigar while telling stories on many appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Art made Johnny laugh.

It must be acknowledged that in recent years, Art’s columns were lame, in the way a strip like Beetle Bailey is off, even if it uses current slang.

But there were times in the last decade, when revelation made him hit soundly: Marine Corps service, admitting depression and being treated for it, and detailing how he had been sexually abused twice when young. Some of memoirs showed him a heel: He was raised in foster homes because his mother was mentally ill, yet he never could forgive her disability enough to visit her after he grew up. Too, when his wife’s health took a turn, they divorced (though they reunited before her death).

Here is some of what Dave Barry said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on March 12:

“I really believe that if I were to try to start my career now, writing essentially the same kind of just sort of weird column I wrote, it would be much more difficult for me to be accepted because I think editors, because of the shrinking readership and because of the limited news hole now, are much more cautious about what they’re willing to put in there, and they’re competing against media that are not cautious, that are — that like to be edgy, and we know who wins that fight usually.

“So I think that’s — that’s one reason. But I also think that people kind of — including people my age — are spoiled by the Internet. We like the idea that we can affect it, that it’s not just the — you know, the all-powerful news medium telling us what’s true and what’s not, and that’s that. And maybe we can write a letter to the editor, and maybe three weeks later they’ll print it.

“Now people don’t accept that. They like to know, well, what is your source, and what other sources are there, and who disagrees with you? And they like to be able to put something on the Internet themselves if they find a flaw. And obviously we get lots of nut balls doing that, but there’s lots of really smart people doing that too.” -30-

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