Art Buchwald

Friday, January 19, 2007

THIS EDITORIAL would have been better if Art Buchwald had written it: shorter sentences, sharper insights and definitely a better punch line. Mr. Buchwald, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, was a master. He wrote a column for well over a half-century, and he kept writing -- writing well, writing funny -- to the end. Last winter, Mr. Buchwald took himself off dialysis and moved into a hospice. But five months later, he was still alive. And all that time he socialized and joked and filed his column. Finally last summer, he moved out of the hospice and resumed his busy life.

It's a sad day, not for the manner of Mr. Buchwald's death, which he took on with what can only be described as humorous heroism, but because of what is passing with him. Art Buchwald's laugh lines could score a political point, and his opinion wasn't hidden, but he brought to daily commentary a touch of wit, a gentle kind of humor and a brave willingness to launch himself occasionally into flights of utter absurdity that produced some of his best moments (see below).

Unfortunately, the Buchwald touch, the ability to use humor deftly, pointedly and yet without cruelty to thoroughly deflate some pious politico or misguided movement, is pretty much a thing of the past in everyday public discourse. There is some wit to be found on the Internet and among the angry cable-TV talkers and the various thoroughly predictable opinion-mongers, but not a lot of it, and not often. Mr. Buchwald kept things civilized, and he had a huge following across the country.

But mostly he kept you laughing. A sample for the uninitiated, from a 1990 column:

"I came back to Paris a few weeks ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the running of the Six-Minute Louvre. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that 40 years ago a young American student named Peter Stone broke the Six-Minute Louvre and brought glory and honor to American tourists everywhere.

"For those of you who weren't around, this is the story.

"It is common knowledge that there are only three things worth seeing in the Louvre. They are the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. The rest of the stuff is all junk. For years tourists went to see those three works and then rushed out to continue their shopping in Paris.

"Before World War II, the record for going through the Louvre was seven minutes and 30 seconds held by a man known as the Swedish Cannonball. After the war an Englishman, paced by his Welsh wife, did it in seven minutes flat -- and pretty soon everyone started talking about a Six-Minute Louvre.

"Thus it was in 1950 that the young Peter Stone went in on a Sunday -- a day when you didn't have to pay -- and, while thousands cheered, ran around the Venus de Milo, up past the Winged Victory, down to the Mona Lisa. You always have to say something when you look at the Mona Lisa. Peter's famous remark was, 'I know the guy who has the original,' and then he drove away in a waiting taxi. Peter did it in five minutes and 56 seconds, a record no tourist has ever been able to beat.

"As I stood in the courtyard of the palace looking around me at the seasoned veterans who had come back, I recalled the '50s and thought, 'When it came to sightseeing, we were the best and the brightest.' "

It goes on, though not much longer, since Mr. Buchwald wrote tight. Look it up sometime, along with many of the other columns of his that have stood the test of time. You'll get more than a few laughs out of them, which would more than please Art Buchwald.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company