Farewell to Andy Rooney: It's Complicated

I, for one, will miss Andy Rooney who, at 92, is closing out a 47-year career at CBS News during which time he walked the halls with other broadcast giants such as Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace and more.

He also worked along side quite a few “non-giants” (we all know the list) and  once had his pay suspended after writing a letter to then CEO Laurence Tisch to complain that CBS News  ”has been turned into primarily a business enterprise and the moral enterprise has been lost.”

Back in March 1987, Tisch had cut more than 215 jobs and  the Writer’s Guild tried to protect their members and, at the time, was five weeks into a strike.  In a gesture of solidarity, Andy Rooney refused to appear on “60 Minutes” and was suspended without pay. His weekly salary then was reported to be  about $7700.

Sunday night, the crumpled Mr. Rooney is signing off 60 Minutes, with his 1,097th commentary and that is nothing short of remarkable. And while most weeks of his 33-year career at 60 minutes he offered a dose of humanity at the end of the broadcast,  he occasionally spewed speech that would wound.

TV GIANT DIDN’T ALWAYS  EXPRESS A GENEROUS  HEART

I always believed you can’t judge a person by their worst moment and that certainly applies to the über talented Andy Rooney whose broadcasts offer nearly five decades of snapshots for a cultural yearbook. But there is a reason to revisit his worst moment, a December 1989 CBS Special The Year With Andy Rooney, when the popular broadcaster, then 71, offered this:

There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced. Too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They’re all known to lead quite often to premature death.

 “It wasn’t as if they didn’t bring it on themselves, ” he added  in his inimitable puckish style.

Rooney was initially unapologetic. “I feel sorry for them more than anything. And I further offended them by feeling sorry for them I guess.  I guess they got a bad hand genetically. It’s like being left-handed to the extent that the world makes it difficult for them.”

He also called GLAAD’s condemnation of his words “akin to the gun lobby’s argument that guns don’t kill people, criminals do. Or the tobacco’s lobby saying cigarettes don’t kill, lung cancer does.”

ROONEY TRIGGERS MY OWN MEMORY LANE

In 1989, while these words wounded many, I knew of one secretly suffering the slings and arrows the most: Charles Gomez, the CBS News correspondent for Latin America who had recently been diagnosed with AIDS.

Chuck, as I called him since our university days, was a smart and handsome  Cuban-American journalist who, at the time, was best known for covering the dangerous “bang-bang” revolutions throughout  Central America.

We had studied journalism together,  interned at the Miami Herald together: I on the features desk, he on the overnight news desk where one night while monitoring the police radio he learned of an Eastern Airlines plane crash in the Everglades and rushed to the scene.  Trumping many more seasoned staff writers across the country, Charles Gomez won the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi (Society of Professional Journalists) Award for deadline writing.

By the time of Andy Rooney’s “special,” I was a producer for ABC News’ PrimeTime Live with Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson.  I felt Chuck’s pain as a CBS correspondent who had kept his diagnosis and sexual orientation private, having long expressed his concern over homophobia at CBS News and throughout the industry.

As I watched the fallout in very slow motion, Chuck’s fears seemed to be validated by Andy Rooney’s words and the shamefully slow response of CBS News management.  In fact, they took no action until seeing the February 27, 1990 issue of The Advocate, a national gay  bi-monthly publication, which attributed this quote to Rooney about blacks, (which he vehemently denied ever making):

”I’ve believed all along that most people are born with equal intelligence, but blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children. They drop out of school early, do drugs and get pregnant.”

The Advocate later printed a rambling letter Rooney sent, without the approval of CBS News officials, in which he apologized for his homosexual-union comment but contended that homosexuality was a “behavioral aberration . . . caused when a male is born with an abnormal number of female genes.”

It was only then, under a new mounting pressure, CBS suspended Rooney for three months and said his future was uncertain.

Then something fascinating happened.  In the following weeks, without Andy Rooney, the 60 Minutes audience shrank by about 20 percent, according to the A. C. Nielsen Company. Then, for the first time since 1978 – the year Mr. Rooney became a regular on the program – 60 Minutes was topped in the ratings by  a special edition of America’s Funniest Home Videos, on ABC.

So, after just three weeks, David Burke, then president of CBS News,  rescinded the suspension citing heavy lobbying by Rooney supporters within CBS and thousands of letters and telephone calls from viewers.

By March 4th, Rooney  returned to the program , with a signature cranky commentary:

”Do I have any opinions that might irritate some people?” Mr. Rooney said. ”You’re damn right I do. That’s what I’m here for.”

He also offered some rare remorse:

There was never a writer who didn’t hope that in some small way he was doing good with the words he put down on paper and, while I know it’s presumptuous, I’ve always had in my mind that I was doing some little bit of good. Now, I was to be known for having done, not good, but bad. I’d be known for the rest of my life as a racist bigot and as someone who had made life a little more difficult for homosexuals. I felt terrible about that and I’ve learned a lot…

I got to meet and observe Andy Rooney during my brief stint as Senior Executive Producer of CBS News’ The Early Show in 2007-8 when I watched him come into work every day, his body powered by more will than energy.  His office wasn’t with the rest of the 60 Minutes gang in a building across the street, it was down the hall from us, close to the men’s room.

His wife of 62 years had died in 2004 of heart failure. Of his beloved “Margie,” Rooney wrote, “her name does not appear as often as it originally did [in my essays] because it hurts too much to write it.”

I know two of their  four extraordinary children:  Emily Rooney,  is Boston TV talk show host who had a short stint as the first and only female executive producer of  World News with Peter Jennings at ABC News, and Brian Rooney, a treasured ABC News correspondent for  22 years. (Emily’s identical twin, Martha, has been Chief of the Public Services Division at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. A third daughter, Ellen, has worked as a photographer based in London.)

So while I believe we shouldn’t  judge someone by their worst act, I think we should take a measure of a man by how he  makes amends and lives his life.

For Andy Rooney, his apology included stories of his two arrests on behalf of those fighting for equality during the civil rights movement. plus this anecdote from his home life:  ‘My son says that one of the worst experiences of his young life was the night I asked a guest to leave our house because he kept using the word ‘nigger,’ adding ”I’d feel the same today if anyone used an insulting word about homosexuals.”

Finally, he offered this rare glimpse of humility:

What do I do to justify the action David Burke, the president of CBS News, has taken in putting me back on air? […] It’s overwhelming…. Let’s face it, even on the nights when I’m good, I’m not that good.

Well, Andy Rooney was that good; he was brilliant.  And if he had ever gotten to know Chuck Gomez at CBS News, I’d like to believe he would have appreciated this bright young rising star of a journalist  whose early career mirrored his own — covering wars from the trenches.

I know he would not agree the AIDS virus Chuck Gomez has successfully kept at bay for over 20 years was  “self-induced” by an indulgence like cigarettes, drugs or alcohol.

Like the newly-released tapes of Jaqueline Kennedy, Andy Rooney’s 47 years of broadcasts must be interpreted through the prism of the time capsule in which they exist.

The irony remains that, at 92 and despite whatever classy public words are delivered Sunday night, like all  journalists who are passionate about their work, Andy Rooney will most likely go off the air secretly kicking and screaming.  In that painful and private exit, he joins a still smart, talented, handsome and very healthy Chuck Gomez who was thrust into his retirement way before his prime, when he was half the age of Andy Rooney.
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