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Andy Rooney: Man of letters

Andy Rooney, of CBS-TV's "60 Minutes," poses in

Andy Rooney, of CBS-TV's "60 Minutes," poses in his office at CBS in Manhattan. (June 19, 1998) Credit: AP File

Andy Rooney, an American treasure, died last night, and because TV doesn't lose those too often, it's appropriate and important to remember why his contributions to journalism and the written word were so powerful and, in fact, indelible. 

  So if you, dear reader, will indulge me, I'm going to post a couple of pieces that I've written about Rooney over the years that I hope can convey every so slightly what he did and why he cared so passionately about it. 

  I think before I get to that, however, the first basic observation to make about the man is that he was a writer; he identified himself as a writer, far more than as a "TV personality." In some ways, he eschewed the latter - oh, he loved the pay, he would remined you - because TV had created this "personality" which tended to obscure what he had written on the page. He knew that was the price to pay, but I'm sure there were times he didn't want to pay it.

 Rooney loved words - the sound of them, the power of them. He especially loved brevity. He loved short, sharp sentences. He hated adorrnment. It was very much of his training - Rooney was a reporter - but very much of his temperament as well. I think he realized that the shortest way to meaning was quite simply by taking the shortest route. Why twist and turn your way through a sentence when the final meaning could have been delivered quickly and painlessly? He was right. Rooney was a superb writer, and in my next few posts, I want to highlight that accomplishment; I think he'd appreciate that. I hope you do too. 

 Here's a column I wrote back in 1999 for Newsday when Andy had just completed a book compilation of his letters: 

December 20, 1999, Monday ALL EDITIONS OFF CAMERA / ROONEY'S A MAN OF LETTERS, AND NOW THEY'RE IN A BOOK BYLINE: Verne Gay SECTION: PART II;

 ANDY ROONEY-unshaven, tieless, and somewhat askew, as most people are on Monday mornings- shuffles over to a window in his tiny CBS office.

He picks up a small picture frame and proudly holds it forth for inspection, as though he were presenting a newborn. It is a letter from E.B. White, the legendary New Yorker writer renowned for his concinnity of phrase.

But nothing in White's illustrious career rivaled this letter for precision of phrase. We quote it here in full: "Dear Andy, Wow. Yours truly, Andy E.B. White."

Wow what? "Wow, you sure have a great golf game." Or, "Wow, you sure know how to throw back those bourbons." A visitor forgets to inquire, but no matter. What is most remarkable about this letter is that it is written in red crayon.

While everything else is neatly typed out, the letters W O W are large and uneven, as though a 6-year-old had teased them out.

And there you have one of the wondrous things about the Age of Letters, which has been eclipsed by the Age of E-Mail. A correspondent could create an amusing and mysterious epistle with just a few scrawls of the old crayon. E-mails? No mystery there. You punch out the message and hit the send button.

Fortunately, Andy Rooney remains an unreconstituted, unapologetic, unbowed member of the letter generation. He writes letters when you or I might sit down to read the paper, or have a cup of coffee, or watch an episode of "Ally McBeal." Scribble, scribble, scribble. Writing another letter, eh, Mister Rooney? By his own admission, he has probably written as many as 25 letters a week over a career that has spanned 60 years. You do the math.

That's a Mount McKinley of letters. By necessity, the merest fraction of them appear in "Sincerely, Andy Rooney," the latest tome from his truly (PublicAffairs, $ 23). But what letters they are. Some are a joy, some tedious, some querulous, some wise, some indulgent, most amusing. "You don't need a detailed chronicle of a person's life to know almost everything about him," he observes in the foreword. "The smallest things we do often give away our whole characters."

The same could be said of the letters we write, and Rooneyologists should have a field day with "Sincerely Yours." Here's an irascible (and early) Rooney letter to the producer of "60 Minutes" that asks that his name be mentioned after the correspondents are named: "Let me know what you decide. I haven't quit in years." And a tough-love letter to the daughter of his friend, Harry Reasoner (whom she believed died under questionable circumstances): "He was so brilliant and such an idiot ... Love his memory as I do but move on."

And a snippy letter to Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: "I hope the man you are engaged to marry is a left-wing atheist. You need some balance in your life." And a perfect letter to a Margaret Schulz of Osoyoos, British Columbia: "Thank you for writing. You're the best friend I ever had in Osoyoos."

Andy Rooney sits back in his chair, and stares blankly at the top of his desk through an effusive pair of eyebrows. One wonders: Would he rather be writing a letter or promoting a book?

Most likely, neither. "Most of us make more friends than we can keep, and not for any reason than that our lives diverge," he says. "You move out of town and you lose an old friend-not because you don't like them anymore.

But they all know where I am, and they all write me. It's nice in a way, but awfully time-consuming." Awfully. Most viewers who write (as many as 300 a week) are rewarded with a form letter informing them that "my old friends" get a personal response. "Everyone else who writes ... makes me feel terrible because I have to send them this." There is also the odd request for the pleasure of his company somewhere, like a recent one asking him to speak at a writer's conference. "Well, it's sort of amusing," he says, "but I got to answer the damn thing ..."

And so Rooney writes letters. He has kept Xeroxed copies of every one-"I have a higher regard for what I wrote than anybody else does, so I save it." Most are stored and forgotten in boxes, or on computer disks in his house upstate.

Those that merited inclusion in "Sincerely Yours," he explains, had to "pass a single test I had in my own little mind: Is there an idea here that's interesting at all?" A wide variety of letters would make the cut. Against the advice of his wife, he would include the 1989 letter about gays that he sent to the Advocate, the gay newspaper based in New York. This one earned him a three-week suspension ( "... it seems to me it is a behavioral aberration ..." ).

"I wasn't too smart with what I said," he now demurs. He would also reprint a long letter written to his children several years ago explaining his agnosticism. Of the church, he writes: "I just wish this social institution wasn't based on what appears to me to be a monumental hoax ... directed toward proving something that isn't true." This letter, he says, has already earned him the wrath of fans (or rather former ones). "I like being liked, I like being watched," he says.

But publishing it "seemed like the honest thing to do ... I am so upset with the American public for not saying what it means about things. They pussyfoot. People are afraid of hurting other people's feelings. As a result, they lie. They dissemble. They don't say what they mean.

"I'm upset with the people who see me as nothing but a carper. A lot of people who don't like me , 'You're always complaining.' I think of myself as a critic. We need all types in the world. We need poets and we need people who can make things. And ... we need critics of the things that are made, too."

And letter writers. Yes, we need them, too.

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