Andy Rooney died last night. I find myself crestfallen about this because I'd spent the last few years trying, off and on, to get in touch with him for the chance to thank him for his influence on my work. I'd even hoped to interview him for this blog, because I think the work he did mattered.
I'm a bit reluctant to admit that because I know the popular image of him: The rambling, out-of-touch curmudgeon ranting at the end of every episode of 60 Minutes. Though he never once said, "Did you ever notice...?" to begin one of his essays, there were certainly enough SNL parody-fueled efforts to mimic him that way that the caricature stuck.
But my image of Andy Rooney was shaped not by popular culture's impression of him, but by his work. And especially, by the work of his he was most proud of: his writing. As a kid, I had spent a lot of time reading and re-reading his early books that were collections of his individual essays, such as A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney, And More By Andy Rooney and Pieces of My Mind. (These are all collected today into The Most of Andy Rooney, but even that is hard to find.) I started reading these books when I was about 4 years old, and they stayed on the bookshelf next to my bed for at least the next decade.
In these essays, he covered the typical topics that people associate with the man; shampoo bottles and gas pumps, woodworking equipment and screen doors. But what struck me more was the lengthy pieces about waste at the Pentagon, written years before started creating stories about $500 hammers was both funny and pointed, in a way that was much closer to today's Jon Stewart show than our get-off-my-lawn perception of Rooney's work.
A Soldier and a Journalist
Rooney's writing was grounded firmly in his serious practice of journalism. He was justifiably proud of having reported for the Stars and Stripes during World War II, and the lengthy testimonials he offered to the bravery and achievements of the soldiers he covered were my first exposure to the accomplishments of those soldiers, long before they were named the "Greatest Generation".
Those experiences in the military undoubtedly influenced his work on what, to me, was his most important topic for his work: racism. Even as far back as the 1940s, Rooney was arrested for choosing to sit, and insisting on remaining, in the back of the bus with the black soldiers he served alongside. That legacy continued at the height of the early civil rights movement, when he won an Emmy for his writing on the notable CBS special "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed".
Essays of Praise
That broadcast, was part of a series of what he always called "essays", reflecting his writerly bias in looking at his work. A year earlier, he'd written an (admittedly imperfect, by modern standards) pro-feminist TV essay called "'An Essay on Women", and he'd go on to write a lengthy TV essay on New York City in 1974, which memorably appeared in written form in the collection I linked to above. (I suspect it's no coincidence that I find myself returning to writing about social justice and New York City so often myself.) Of note: All of these essays were exuberant, funny, positive pieces in praise of the topics they covered. Despite his later image as a curmudgeon and his admittedly skeptical tone, the bulk of the work that defined his career was being a voice of advocacy for those out of power, whether it was African Americans, women, or the image of military veterans in the waning days of Vietnam. And he was loyal in a way that few can even fathom today; He spent six decades working at CBS.
Ultimately, I remember Andy Rooney in the way I think he'd wanted to be remembered: As a writer, a good and serious one, who reported on topics with a personal voice that made complex topics approachable and everyday topics noteworthy. I've always strongly felt that his legitimization of personal voice in his widely-syndicated newspaper column was an indirect cultural influence on the rise of blogs and other more personal media to their recent dominance of the media landscape. And most important to me personally, he taught me to take seriously the craft of writing, even when the topics themselves weren't necessarily serious. For that alone, I can't thank Andy Rooney enough.