Even in the past few decades, when the awards and the accolades and the book deals piled up, Rooney still oozed that palpable sense of belonging to no formal party or clique. He had seen war. He had lost friends. And he had no patience for the slings and arrows of broadcast schtick. Such a sense of independence, and a constitutional intolerance for bullshit, are legacies any respectable journalist would be proud to bequeath to his successors. And it is the rich legacy Rooney now leaves to CBS News with the announcement Tuesday that, at the age of 92, he will no longer be a regular commentator on 60 Minutes, the show to which he has memorably contributed since 1978.
A lot of people in recent years, especially a lot of young people who don't know any better, have made a great deal of fun of Rooney for his television style and his choice of topics during his end-of-show commentaries. Those people today don't necessarily need to read the litany of Rooney's professional accomplishments or listen to the praise of his contemporaries, the ones who are left. And they don't need to heed the sincere words of his bosses and colleagues at CBS News, who rightly reminded people Tuesday that Rooney is a wholly unique figure in the history of American journalism, a man who has ably chronicled our world for 70 years. Seventy years.
Instead, those critics, the ones who mock Rooney's delivery, the ones who poke fun of his eyebrows, simply ought to spend a few hours this weekend reading his most important book, My War, a powerful 1995 account of his work covering his generation's greatest conflict. Peter Osnos, my colleague here at The Atlantic and the editor-at-large and founder of Public Affairs, who edited Rooney, told me Tuesday that the writer considers My War one of his favorite books, one in which he revealed the "depth of his character and bravery." It is, indeed, a very good book, one of the rare memoirs of war in which the author is able both to deliver inside detail and an outsider's perspective.
Here then, from the preface of My War, is a reminder that Andy Rooney paid his dues as a young man, more dues than most journalists pay in a lifetime, thus earning forever the right to say whatever the hell he wants to say:
... I can't deny that The War--we call World War II "The War" as though there had never been another--was the ultimate experience for anyone in it. If you weren't killed or seriously wounded, it was an exhilarating time of life. Most of us live our lives at half speed and on schedule. We sleep when we aren't tired, eat when we aren't hungry and go to the movies or watch television to laugh or cry in order to transport ourselves out of our real lives into someone else's as if our lives were not interesting, funny or sad enough to satisfy us.
Life is real at war, concentrated and intense. it is lived at full speed. Most people don't understand how terrible parts of it are because the stories about war are almost all concerned with the drama of survival and victory over great odds. If you read about war, you get more of an impression of winning and of the heroes who lived to be honored than of the losers and the dead who were buried.
War brings up questions to which there are no good answers. One question in my mind, which I hardly dare mention in public, is whether patriotism has, overall, been a force for good or evil in the world. Patriotism is rampant in war and there are some good things about it. Just as self-respect and pride bring out the best in an individual, pride in family, pride in teammates, pride in hometown bring out the best in groups of people. War brings out the kind of pride in country that encourages its citizens in the direction of excellence and it encourages them to be ready to die for it. At no time do people work so well together to achieve the same goal as they do in wartime. Maybe that's enough to make patriotism eligible to be considered a virtue. If only I could get out of my mind the most patriotic people who ever lived, the Nazi Germans.
For three of my four years in the Army, I saw the fighting from close up. I can't forget much of what I saw and I want to write it down. For one thing, writing is a cathartic experience. Once you've put something down on paper, you can dismiss it from your mind. Having told it, I'll be able to forget it.
For all of his achievements in the field of broadcast journalism, for all of the face time he earned on the most important news show in the history of television, Andy Rooney at heart is a great writer. Pointed. Concise. Revealing. And like many good war reporters, usually free of flowery prose. Years ago, when I struck up a friendship with him, I would send him my columns seeking his counsel. He would invariably tell me what I knew in my heart to be true--then and now. "Too many words," Andy Rooney would say to me, over and over again. "Too many words."