For many years, I inhabited a tiny cubicle just a few feet away from Andy Rooney's office in the Broadcast Center at CBS News in New York. Andy mentioned he liked working in the Broadcast Center (home of the Evening News) so he could be closer to the immediacy and action of breaking news. The truth was, unlike everybody else at 60 Minutes who worked in slightly fancier offices across the street, Andy also enjoyed his autonomy. He despised supervision and thought it prudent to work far from those who might consider tinkering with his work. So, in a corner office, distant from anyone particularly influential, Andy worked behind a magnificent knurled oak desk he crafted by hand in his upstate woodworking shop. On the sideboard to his right, more for nostalgia, was the banged up old manual typewriter he had used for years. But smack in the middle of his quaint desk was a much loathed laptop computer that had previously been issued to me... and, for a while, until he mastered the dreaded thing, Andy enjoyed punishing me for bequeathing him this newfangled annoyance. Every so often he'd drag me in to address his latest bafflement with the odious computer he somehow blamed me for.
His curmudgeonly act was just that, an act. He would find humor in most things and I don't remember a time, even when most contrary, that he wasn't thoroughly sharing his amusement. You couldn't spend time with Andy without enduring justifiable teasing. And he enjoyed being teased back.
This brings me to lunch. He had a few idiosyncrasies; the most obvious was that he detested being bothered when eating and despised being asked for autographs. We would, on occasion, grab a bite down in the CBS News cafeteria... hardly known for fine cuisine. I believe Andy frequented the mediocre joint because he could be relatively assured his CBS colleagues wouldn't bug him while he had food in his mouth. (He'd also regularly eat at his club, the Century, in midtown Manhattan, where the food was similarly mediocre but his fellow members also left him in peace.)
One day, as we were having another modest meal in the cafeteria, a young enthusiastic intern came and interrupted Andy's lunch to ask for an autograph. Andy almost exploded at the poor kid. "Can't you see we're eating? Why the heck would you ask for an autograph anyway? What's wrong with you?" The naive schlemiel slunk away shocked. In my perversity, I managed to quickly convince several superb CBS news colleagues, milling about nearby, to each innocently come over and ask Andy for his autograph. Andy started to laugh.
I think Andy hated being asked for autographs because he abhorred hero worship and despised this vapid American obsession with celebrity. He wouldn't mind signing his books, because he enjoyed when he was acknowledged for his writing or his wit. But Andy didn't consider himself a celebrity: first, and foremost, he saw himself as a producer and a writer... the on-camera stuff was almost a coincidence. (That's not to say he didn't love being on camera; of course he did.)
On occasion, when the mood hit him, I would get an "Andygram" via CBS News interoffice mail. Mostly, he'd send me an article about some technology that amused him or evidence backing up his view on an issue we'd discussed. But the best messages would come like little fortune cookie quotations, usually poking fun at some pronouncement I'd make. The one I've saved said "Just because it is written in Yiddish doesn't make it profound." This he ascribed to some great Jewish sage but I think he just made it up.
That Andy Rooney, like his close friend Walter Cronkite, first made their bones as war correspondents during the Second World War is well known. We never spoke about the fact that he was one of the first journalists to arrive at several concentration camps and to write about the atrocities. But we did speak at length about the courage of the ball turret gunners -- the men who flew and the many that died defending the B17s in perilous spheres beneath the plane. Once in the turret, they knew they were stuck if the plane was hit or crash-landed.
To others, Mr. Rooney had described himself as a pacifist until he saw the concentration camps. I believe he found it easier to think about the heroism and sacrifice of men (like the ball turret gunners) than the execrable-side of mankind that could perpetrate acts as heinous as the Holocaust.
He courageously took the side of the writers during the Writers Guild Strike and, unlike most of his colleagues, he bravely denounced horrendous cuts that decimated CBS News under the sorry regimes of Larry Tisch and others. Political correctness and pomposity were odious to Andy yet he didn't have a mean-spirited or racist bone in his body. Ironically, when tweaking excessive political correctness, Andy Rooney was shocked to find some of his quips, taken out of context, were tangled by some to misrepresent his fundamental decency. I think it surprised and offended him when some just couldn't take a joke... or understand that a millimeter behind his cranky on-camera persona was a man of passionate decent principles.
When I left CBS News several years ago, I knew I'd miss many of the finest and most ethical people I'd ever encountered. Andy Rooney was a tireless producer, writer, and commentator, of course. But his humor, loyalty, and humanity were extraordinary, not just to me, who only knew him for a few minutes at a time, but to all of his colleagues, especially those who worked most closely with him. So, sitting with my wife at a local restaurant a few days ago... just before Andy announced his retirement, I saw him walk in with a cane. He still seemed full of pep and was talking, quite happily, with a friend. My wife, who knew how much I idolized him, elbowed me in the ribs, asking why, when he walked past, I didn't say hello. I smiled and remembered just how much Andy enjoyed eating in peace. For a moment, I thought I'd go ask for his autograph, but it was sweeter just thinking about it.