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Bob Driver: Memories of Art Buchwald

The political columnist and humorist Art Buchwald has been dead for nine years. I still miss him. I enjoyed and admired his writing for many years, and envied him without shame as someone whose life (or much of it) I’d have gladly exchanged for my own — if such swaps were possible, which they’re not.

Art’s childhood was no picnic. His father was a long-term mental patient. Art was placed in a series of foster homes, and for a time he suffered from rickets. He ran away from home at age 17, hoping to join the U.S. Marines. Underage and unable to have a parent or guardian sign for him, Buchwald used half a bottle of whiskey to persuade a drunk to do the necessary paperwork.

Once in uniform, Art was shipped to the South Pacific, where he served with the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. Discharged as a sergeant, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, which allowed him to pursue his studies despite his never having obtained a high school diploma.

In the late 1940s, Buchwald discovered that the GI Bill would allow him to study abroad if he wished. He wished to, indeed. He bought a one-way ticket to Paris and never looked back, at least not until 1962, when he returned to the United States. By then he was famous for his writing, his wit and his skill at showing the joys of Paris to the many visitors who dropped by the offices of the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune.

For most of the next 30 years, Buchwald’s columns were syndicated by the Tribune Media Services, at one point reaching 550 newspapers. His columns formed the basis for 30 books.

Was Buchwald the funniest writer, the most perceptive critic, the columnist with the sharpest barb that could draw blood? I don’t think so, and I don’t believe Art ever hankered to be known for those talents.

What he excelled at was his ability to see the insanity and foolishness in our daily lives, especially in the political arena. He delighted in smoking out hypocrisy in high and low places, and asking questions that often produced embarrassed (or embarrassing) answers from occupants of the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, show business, Wall Street, the sports world and many other allegedly civilized regions. He even took aim at foreign lands and their people, traditions and even their religions.

His customary style of column-writing was to invent a fictional interview with a newsmaker. The resulting questions and answers would shed light, or laughter, on the topic at hand. Art’s approach was seldom nasty or vindictive, but by the end of the column you would know what Art thought about a person or issue.

Are there any journalists writing today who should be ranked up there beside Art Buchwald in the gallery of American humorists? The names of Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Andy Borowitz and Maureen Dowd come to mind, although I’m not sure they rival Buchwald for the long-term grinding out of two or three columns a week for decades. Among the top-flight but now-departed brigade, Andy Rooney, Lewis Grizzard and Molly Ivins should be included. If I’ve failed to list one or two of your favorites, please let me know.

Today’s quarrelsome, acid-ridden, vengeful political scene cries out for voices such as Buchwald’s.

He could be gentle and funny while still scoring points that deserved to be made. He often deserted politics to write about topics such as Thanksgiving. He said his favorite column was his 1952 piece in which he explained our Thanksgiving traditions to the French by converting

English-language terminology into a (roughly) French equivalent. You can easily Google that column.

I heard Buchwald speak one evening in Toledo, Ohio, many years ago when he addressed a journalism fraternity. He was entertaining at the podium, but somewhat withdrawn when it came to personal conversations. Many writers are not much fun to socialize with. But as the French say, “On s’en fout?” (Who cares?).

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Bob Driver writes “The Driver’s Seat” each week for Tampa Bay Newspapers. He was the editorial page editor and a columnist for the Clearwater Sun, and reported for the Toledo Blade and Syracuse Herald-Journal. His email address is tralee71@comcast.net Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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