It was odd becoming a personal friend of Andy Rooney so late in his life and so far into my own. I'd seen him on "60 Minutes" for all 33 years, first while sitting on the rug in my parents' house. Through one of Andy's close friends and neighbors, I actually got to know him 10 years ago. To answer the question, "Was Andy really like that?" I say, "Yes, totally."
What you saw on the screen was what you got -- a plain old guy interested in the ordinary and short on patience. He was so unfancy that you quickly forgot you were with an American icon, and that's how he wanted it. If I went on too long with a story, Andy would break in with a grouchy "that's enough." Meanwhile, I could say, "You don't know what you're talking about, Andy," and he'd smile.
In public, there was no doubt of being in the company of major-league celebrity. When Andy wound his way through his favorite restaurant, Ouest on Manhattan's Upper West Side, drinkers packing the bar parted in a wave and smiled like crazy. Bill Clinton was once there, spotted Andy, rushed over to express his admiration and sat down. Andy was surprised at the time, because he had been bashing Clinton every week.
It was striking how young immigrants had bonded with this retro emissary of the old American heartland. (Andy came from Albany, N.Y.) A doorman who spoke little English once got a group of us a cab. When someone offered the doorman a tip, he refused the money, saying, "I love that man."
Don't believe Andy's spiel that he didn't like being famous. He did.
Andy lasted so long, in part, because of his plainspoken wit, a rare talent that drew comparisons with Will Rogers. Like "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve, Andy offered continuity. Those asking why he wasn't replaced on "60 Minutes" years ago didn't get it: His job was to always be there.
Andy's New York apartment was a shabby affair in a slightly down-at-the-heels building. A shower stall missing the handle was outfitted with a looped piece of string. His television was an old tube job, unattached to recording devices. Andy watched TV in real time. He did his own cooking (chocolate mint ice cream was a specialty), drove his own car and parked it on the streets.
When Andy officially retired from "60 Minutes," the snark patrol snickered that "the old guy was long past his sell date." I disagree.
Out of that jowly sourpuss came some of the most courageous freethinking in American journalism. After 9/1 1, when even liberal media were pushing for the march into Iraq, Andy came on and said he despised the idea. When CBS radically downsized its news staff, Andy turned the cannons on his longtime employer. Cable TV is full of fresh young faces dishing stale opinions. Andy's shopworn mug delivered exactly what he thought, the heck with political correctness.
Did the end of the run on "60 Minutes" hasten Andy's death? Many no doubt wonder about that. Actually, it was only the latest of several recent losses -- of his wife for more than 60 years, of his best friend Walter Cronkite, of his vitality as he entered his 90s.
Know what I think? I think that when the "60 Minutes" gig came to an end, he said, "That's enough," and let old age quickly take him.