On the red carpet at the Kennedy Center in Washington in April, comedian and activist Jon Stewart was asked if he would ever consider running for office.
“Show business is a good training ground for ego and arrogance for politics,” he told the Guardian, “but the art of compromise and the different transactional natures of what they do are generally against misanthropes who sit in rooms and write jokes, it’s too tempting to blow up meetings.
That night when Stewart received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, presidential historian Jon Meacham said of him: “He likes to say that he is not an activist, not an arena player, but only an observer. Well, Jon, we love you – but you’re so wrong about that.
The boundary between player and observer is worth keeping in mind when considering Art Buchwald, the most widely read humorist of his time, whose memorial service took place at the Kennedy Center in 2007. Dean Acheson, a former Secretary of State, called it “the greatest English-language satirist since Pope and Swift”.
Buchwald is now the subject of a biography, funny business, by historical scholar Michael Hill, which draws on his most memorable chronicles and unpublished correspondence. Its dust jacket blurb includes Meacham’s praise for an “absorbing, illuminating and wonderfully entertaining book“.
Buchwald moved in elite circles that included Robert, Edward and Ethel Kennedy, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and writers John Steinbeck and Irwin Shaw. But he always thought of himself as an outsider, the court jester who points out that the emperor has no clothes.
Speaking via Zoom from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Hill, 68, said: “He considered himself a satirist trying to wake people up on certain issues. Good political satirists are important if not essential – and I think Buchwald would agree with that – for a healthy democracy. If a bureaucrat does something absurd, if a self-involved celebrity does something absurd, he felt it was his obligation.
“Buchwald made it his goal to always be anti-establishment. He was against everything he perceived to be the establishment, but especially establishment nonsense. He didn’t care what political party he was. acted: he was going to prosecute them. He was very attached to freedom of satire and freedom of expression and he was never going to be muzzled.”
Just after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, for example, a friend approached Buchwald at a party in Georgetown and remarked that now that a Democrat was in the White House for the first time in 12-year-old Buchwald would probably go easy. Hill adds, “Buchwald said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s my job you’re talking about. That’s what I do.'”
Born in New York in October 1925, Buchwald had a miserable childhood. He hardly ever saw his mother, Helen, an immigrant from Hungary, who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital a few weeks after her birth and confined for the last 35 years of her life. With his father struggling to pay his bills, Buchwald and his sisters were sent to foster homes.
“It left him with a horrible, dark impression, which is part of why he struggled with depression for the rest of his life,” Hill says. “But the positive side of that, if there is one, is that he became very independent very early on and he also realized that the only way for him to survive all the crap that life was throwing at him was to be funny, to be the class clown, that’s what he did. He decided I was going to be a funny guy. So that became his goal.”
In the 1940s, Buchwald dropped out of high school, joined the Marines, and served in World War II. He caught wind of an opportunity for veterans to go to Paris and study, so he bought a one-way ticket to Europe and worked his way up to a job at the New York Herald Tribune.
He became the quintessential American in Paris, mingling with Ernest Hemingway and others, and writing popular columns such as “Paris After Dark”, “Mostly About People”, and “Europe’s Lighter Side”.
Hill continues, “He later said that those 14 years there were the happiest years of his life. Many of his friendships that began in Paris continued for the rest of his life, especially Ben Bradlee, who was undoubtedly one of his closest friends and supporters.”
Some friends advised Buchwald against leaving the high life in Paris, but he returned to the United States in 1962. He quickly established himself with a Washington Post column syndicated to 500 newspapers worldwide. In 1982 he won a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding commentary.
Hill explains, “He was able to tap into the early anti-establishment fervor and then, of course, with Watergate, you had a whole new period of not just rebellion but disillusionment.
“He helped people keep their sanity and laugh at things, laugh at the absurdity of politicians and what they were doing. It was a respite from the grim headlines of Vietnam and Watergate and so on. People were able to pause and read Buchwald.
But the brand of humor was less crude or wild than some of Buchwald’s comedic heirs. “He said at one point, “I’m not going for the jugular.” There was a line he did not cross. He could be sharp, he could be sharp, he wasn’t afraid to go for it but he wasn’t mean or profane about it.”
Buchwald himself once explained that the key to his humor was to “treat light subjects with seriousness and serious subjects with lightness”. No topic was too big or too small or too esoteric.
Hill continues, “If anyone wanted to have a fun, quirky way of understanding the political, cultural, and social issues of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, go back and read Art Buchwald’s chronicles. He talked about everything. It wasn’t just politicians and bureaucrats, but also celebrities, mini-skirts, airport baggage claims. He touched everything.”
Hill’s favorite column dates from 1964 and is titled “J Edgar Hoover Just Doesn’t Exist”, suggesting that the FBI Director is a “mythical person imagined by Reader’s Digest”. This sparked a debate across the country over whether the claim was actually true. Hoover and the FBI didn’t see the funny side.
Buchwald’s many columns poking fun at President Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War ruffled so many feathers that the National Security Agency put him under surveillance. As the conflict escalated, Buchwald offered to send superheroes Batman and Robin (Batman star Adam West saw the column and wrote to Buchwald promising to rush to his aid if Johnson fought back).
Naturally, the “Washington spirit” also had fun with President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. “He said he wanted Nixon to run for a third term because he provided such good material.
“He said he would go after both sides but going after the left was a bit trickier because, if he did, they would say, ‘Aren’t you one of us? Why do you do that?’ That didn’t deter him, but he said it took a bit more courage to take a left jab.
Some of the columns are now weird historical rhymes. In 1976, he proposed “Art’s Gun Control Plan”, demanding a federal mandate to cut off “everyone’s trigger finger at birth” in an effort to reduce gun violence in America. “The constitution gives everyone the right to bear arms,” he wrote. “But nothing says an American has to have ten fingers.”
In 1989, the famous tycoon Donald Trump launched an ill-fated airline with characteristic bluster and invited Buchwald to fly over it. Buchwald responded in a letter: “…thank you for all the free miles you give away. If I understand correctly, if you say the word “Trump” in a gathering of more than twenty people, you get forty-three miles of credit in your OnePass account. »
So what would Buchwald have thought of President Trump? Hill reckons, “He would have had the time of his life and maybe he might have been a little more spirited with it.
“Buchwald would have done very well in the age of social media on Twitter because he had a tremendous mind. If he were alive today, he could win an all-out war on Twitter with anyone. Like any great satirist, he could throw a good punch, he could take a punch and then he could return a good punch.
Buchwald, who had three children, enjoyed playing chess and poker and smoked six to eight cigars a day – his “pacifier” – until he quit in 1988 on doctor’s orders. In the 1990s, he finally went public with his long-standing “dark secret” in a series of interviews revealing his lifelong struggle with depression.
He even went on tour with two friends, novelist William Styron and broadcaster Mike Wallace, who also battled the disease. They called themselves the “Blues Brothers” as they shared their stories in hopes of comforting them.
Hill reflects, “He went public because he wanted to try to help other people deal with it. I know he’s heard a lot of people say that going public has helped him a lot. It’s something he’s fought his whole life, but again, that’s part of what’s great about Buchwald: from the start, he always thwarted the odds. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. »
At one point, Buchwald was all over the place with a radio show, a spot on the current affairs TV show 60 Minutes, a Broadway play, lectures around the country, and bestselling compilations of his columns. Yet 15 years after his death at the age of 81, as the torch passed to a new generation including Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver, his notoriety has faded faster than expected.
“He fell from public consciousness and that’s a shame,” Hill laments. “It has unfortunately been forgotten. I hope this book will bring him back to life. I hope people in this difficult time can also laugh about it.