"Does it embarrass me?" says Art Buchwald. "Yes, it does embarrass me."
He's talking about today's installment of his column, syndicated in about 550 newspapers from Washington to Wiesbaden. It's the same column, not a pun or a punch line changed, that has run for 31 consecutive Thanksgiving Days by Buchwald's count, pioneering a new frontier of reader tolerance.
"After all these years, it's hard to stop," he says. "I think of all the people out there who wake up in the morning expecting to see it in the paper. The responsibility is so great -- how can I stop if the readers want it? The column is bigger than I am."
Indeed, it's as much of a tradition as the Thanksgiving turkey (with which it is often confused, although the author prefers to liken it to Dickens' "A Christmas Carol").
"It started when I was in Paris," says Buchwald, who was a nightlife correspondent for the Paris Herald in 1953. "It occurred to me that the French didn't know anything about Thanksgiving, so I started fooling around with French phrases and how they would translate. It was a very big hit with the American community, and with the French community that could read English. The next year, I thought to myself, 'I'll just write it again.' That time it wasn't a very big hit. It was a big hit. And you could say that it's been a big hit ever since."
In the early years, before his reference to the McCarran Act sent people to their encyclopedias, Buchwald found it easy to justify rerunning the column. But as time went on, he says, it got harder and harder.
"I used to think I was getting a day off," he says. "But now, a tremendous amount of creative energy goes into it. I usually have to spend two or three weeks just trying to think of a reason to run it again."
In recent years he has invoked the rise of the U.S. dollar in relation to the French franc, President Reagan's newfound tolerance of French participation in the Soviet oil pipeline -- and even that old standby, the public's "right to know." Judging by today's explanation, Buchwald's situation is becoming increasingly tenuous.
"This may be the end of a tradition," he says. "You know, I'm very superstitious. I've had such a good run with it, I hate to mess around. But now that you mention it, I'm starting to dislike it intensely."