The Genius of Art Buchwald

By Ronald G. Shafer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

As Art Buchwald keeps his fellow patients in stitches at a Washington hospice, it's time to remember how this national treasure of humor has kept us all laughing for more than 50 years. In his heyday, Buchwald, now 80, was in more newspapers than any other columnist. Harry Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, called him "the greatest satirist in English since Pope and Swift."

Buchwald's genius is that he makes us laugh and he makes us think. He first gained world attention writing from Paris in the 1950s when President Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, called a special NATO press briefing to take seriously a Buchwald spoof column, denouncing it as "unadulterated rot." Buchwald retorted: "Hagerty is wrong -- I write adulterated rot."

In the 1960s Buchwald brought his humor to Washington. Some didn't appreciate it. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson caught press secretary Bill Moyers reading a typically antiwar Buchwald column. "Do you think he's funny?" the president barked. To which Moyers quickly replied: "No, sir."

Buchwald rose to new heights during the Watergate scandal, explaining that the sound in the 18 1/2 -minute gap in the White House tapes actually was Nixon humming. His columns on President Reagan, compiled in a book called "While Reagan Slept," earned him a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding commentary in 1982. Even after a stroke in 2000, Buchwald rebounded, jabbing at President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. His columns continued until just a few weeks ago, because, as he said, "I still have fire in the belly."

Art Buchwald's humor grew out of adversity. As a child in New York City, he and his two sisters were shuttled from one foster home to another. He never knew his mother, who was committed to an asylum soon after his birth.

But Art Buchwald grabbed onto life. During World War II, it took courage for the 17-year-old Buchwald to join the Marines. It took courage to go far away to the University of Southern California -- while neglecting to mention that he was a high school dropout. He used the G.I. Bill to go all the way to Paris, where his chutzpah got him a job on the New York Herald Tribune and fame with a column, "Paris After Dark."

The demons from Buchwald's youth returned in two bouts of depression -- one in the early 1960s amid anxiety about his switch to Washington and a second in the 1980s during the breakup of his long marriage. He still jokes that if he has a third bout of depression, "I will be inducted in the Bipolar Hall of Fame."

Buchwald never forgot his roots. At a time when he was the highest-paid lecturer in America, he would speak for free at many charity events. He dressed up in a bunny costume at Ethel Kennedy's annual Easter egg hunt. His friends know him as a serious and kind man who also happens to love to make people laugh.

The late senator Paul Douglas once told Buchwald: "You are very lucky. American society only lets a few people make fun of them, and you have one of the licenses." Douglas didn't have it quite right. We are the lucky ones.

The writer is a retired editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal who has known Art Buchwald since writing a story about him 37 years ago.

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