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On Sunday: a final few minutes with Andy Rooney

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FRAZIER MOORE | September 29, 2011 07:16 AM EST | AP


NEW YORK — On the broadcast they call it "A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney."

They might better have called it "A Few Choice Words From Andy Rooney."

Rooney, despite his decades as a "60 Minutes" fixture, is a writer, not a talking head. Words, not vamping for the camera, have been his stock-in-trade since his first "60 Minutes" essay in 1978, just as words were for more than 30 years before that.

But on Sunday's edition of "60 Minutes," Rooney will have a few last words. The broadcast will mark his final commentary in his longtime role as weekly pundit. CBS says it will be his 1097th for the program. Tick, tick, tick, tick ....

News that he is stepping down was released abruptly earlier this week. Even so, it wasn't much of a surprise. Rooney is 92 and surely recognizes this truth: Words may last forever, but not the person who crafts them.

Rooney has been a champion of words on TV ever since he joined CBS in 1949 as a writer for the red-hot "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." Within a few years he was also writing for CBS News public-affairs shows such as "The Twentieth Century" and "Calendar."

A World War II veteran who reported for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, he came from an ink-on-dead-trees brand of journalism that he never renounced. (During his CBS career, he had a syndicated newspaper column and published 16 books.)

So it was logical that he would join "60 Minutes" with its inception in 1968. After all, the legendary creator of "60 Minutes," Don Hewitt, is well remembered for insisting that, even on the visual medium of TV, the words should come first and the pictures follow. A decade later, Rooney was 59. At an age when many people might be pondering retirement, he took his seat before the camera to deliver his first "60 Minutes" essay.

Beetle-browed and rumpled, he wasn't telegenic by traditional standards. Nobody minded, or even noticed. Viewers listened to his words and he caught on.

Exactly why he won and kept a following can be debated long after he's gone. Right now, the nature of his appeal must surely be occupying CBS News honchos as they ponder how, or whether, to replace him. (CBS has made no announcement on that score.)

But one reason for his appeal is clear: He tapped into experiences common to his audience.

In his opinion pieces, he drew from a wellspring of everyday annoyances and absurdities, noting how the life we share often doesn't add up. This provoked him, and his essays gave us license to be irked, too, as we tapped into our own inner fuddy-duddy.

One Sunday, for example, Rooney focused on motion-picture credits. There are too many of them. They take too long. Who cares, anyway? Things were better when he was a kid, without all those names wasting everybody's time.

Another week, he tried to explain the flat tax by showing flat things – a pancake, a punctured tire. Then he threw up his hands: A flat tax isn't worth figuring out after all, it's just an empty campaign promise.

He raised to conscious level things on which we all could agree: How banks insist on having lofty-sounding names.

He validated things in his own wry style that everybody knows and says: How air travel stinks.

He took notably bold stands on certain major issues: He was one of television's few voices to strongly oppose the war in Iraq when it began.

There were easy targets, too: "There are a lot of know-nothing boobs who don't appreciate the modern art being put up in public places in all our cities," he declared peevishly one week. "I know this is true, because I'm one of those know-nothing boobs."

Then, occasionally, he strayed into areas beyond his understanding. For example, he dismissed Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide as, in effect, a selfish act. What did Cobain know about suffering? The 27-year-old rock star hadn't suffered through a war or the Depression! (The next week, he apologized on the air.)

He could play rough.

"One of my major shortcomings – I'm vindictive," he pleasantly acknowledged in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. "I don't know why that is. Even in petty things in my life I tend to strike back. It's a lot more pleasurable a sensation than feeling threatened."

"There's no question I have a negative streak," he summed up, "which has served me well."

Indeed. But if Rooney sometimes championed a get-off-my-lawn brand of crankiness, there was usually a twinkle in his eye and a "we're-in-this-together" tone to his writing.

And for Rooney, it all came down to the writing, the words: simple, succinct, sometimes pungent, sometimes funny, and cut to the chase. Then, tick, tick, tick, tick ...

He will do it one more time as a weekly commentator this Sunday, completing a remarkable run. And in those few minutes, he will demonstrate one final piece of Rooney-worthy wisdom – that all the words in the world come down to just one: goodbye.

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