Buchwald on Choosing How to Live and Die
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ART BUCHWALD, Humorist and Columnist: We can party now. We got the place until 5.
JEFFREY BROWN: Art Buchwald can’t help but enjoy life and make others laugh, even as he nears his own death. The 80-year-old humorist and columnist is suffering from kidney failure and recently made public his decision to forego dialysis that could possibly prolong his life, at what he considers too burdensome a cost.
Buchwald’s spending his final days here at the Washington home and community hospices in Washington, D.C., surrounded by friends and family…
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE, French Ambassador to the U.S.: This is the moment…
ART BUCHWALD: Oh, boy.
JEFFREY BROWN: … and being feted by dignitaries, including French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, who recently honored Buchwald for his contribution to arts and culture during his 14 years as a journalist in Paris.
ART BUCHWALD: I didn’t know dying was this much fun.
JEFFREY BROWN: Through more than five decades, Art Buchwald has written some 8,000 columns, read by hundreds of thousands of readers, beginning in 1948 in Paris, where he lived and documented the highlife for the European edition of the New York Herald-Tribune, hobnobbed with an array of celebrities and, through humor, explained Americans and the French to one another.
Back in Washington, beginning in the 1960s, he turned his sharp wit on the foibles of politicians of all stripes. At its height, his column appeared in 550 newspapers worldwide and won Buchwald a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding commentary in 1982.
Starting with the Johnson presidency, Buchwald’s writings were collected in numerous books, Democrats and Republicans, up to George W. Bush, all targets of his satire.
In the ’90s, Buchwald published two memoirs, one on his Paris years, another on his early life and the trauma of never knowing his mother, who was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility soon after Buchwald’s birth.
He and his sisters would grow up in a series of foster homes, before he left high school to join the Marines and serve in the Pacific during World War II. All in all, quite a life, and he’s still at it, writing two columns last week and a new one just today.
When I called to ask if he felt up to talking about his life and his decision on dying, he said, “Sure, come on by.”
I had a great time reading your memoir, “Leaving Home,” in which you wrote: “I must have been six or seven years old, terribly lonely and confused, when I said something like, ‘This stinks. I’m going to become a humorist.’”
ART BUCHWALD: Yes. I wasn’t joking. I discovered at a very early age, because I was a foster child and everything, that I could make kids laugh, so I got all of my love from the crowds. And I’ve been doing that all my life.
JEFFREY BROWN: And so what did humor come to mean for you? What did it let you do?
ART BUCHWALD: I don’t explain it as what it means to me; all I know is that I can be funny. And I’ve found out they pay for it, and that’s when it really got good, when I started on the Herald-Tribune, and they were paying me for making people laugh.
JEFFREY BROWN: How did you know, from wine and restaurants and the Paris highlife?
ART BUCHWALD: I didn’t. And when the editor asked me after I took the job that same question, “What did you know?” I said, “I was the wine taster in the Marine Corps.”
JEFFREY BROWN: When you came back to Washington and you’re writing about politics and all the foibles of Washington, it’s great fun to go back and see that you wrote about Republicans, Democrats, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Carter. You’re bipartisan, huh?
ART BUCHWALD: Well, I had a line in my talk which said, “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican; I’m just against who’s ever in power.” And they asked me about Nixon and I said, “I worshipped the very quicksand he walks on.”
JEFFREY BROWN: So they all provided material for you, huh?
ART BUCHWALD: I’m still here. I’ve been doing this for 55 years. So, yes, they provided me with material.
To this day, this president has been very good to me. Humor is one thing; satire is another. And after all of these years in the business, I think you want to be known as a satirist, because you want people to nod their heads instead of laughing, saying, “Yes, he’s right.”
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean nod their head, as in, “I’m learning something, as well as laughing”?
ART BUCHWALD: Yes. Yes, I’m on their side.
JEFFREY BROWN: I see. You feel like you’re on the side of the reader, is that what you’re trying to do?
ART BUCHWALD: Yes, I’m not on the side of, I don’t know, the reader, but I’m on the side of good against evil. I am a good person.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, where does all of this material come from? Do you just sit and read the newspaper?
ART BUCHWALD: Where does it come from? You pick up the newspaper every day, you got Vice President Cheney.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, you read it, you get mad, but then you write it as something funny?
ART BUCHWALD: Yes, I do better when I’m mad. I learned that people want to laugh, and also the readers, or most of them, want somebody to say, “This is full of it. This is not what it’s about.”
And as you know, each administration does the same thing: They twist things; they do everything except possibly tell you the truth. So I figured, well, I think, for the heck of it, I’ll tell them the truth, at least as I see it.
JEFFREY BROWN: We came to talk to you in this hospice…
ART BUCHWALD: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: … because you’ve made a decision…
ART BUCHWALD: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: … not to go on to dialysis…
ART BUCHWALD: Dialysis, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: … which could prolong your life.
ART BUCHWALD: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you decide that?
ART BUCHWALD: Well, it was a complicated thing. I had lost my leg — nobody knows why, but gangrene set in, and I lost this leg. It had nothing to do with the kidney. This leg had to do with the kidney.
I examined it, and I said, “I’m not going to go into dialysis.” They took my leg, and I was furious. So I finally made the decision, because we do have choices, and I said, “I’m not going to have it.”
So I went into this hospice. I was supposed to go in two or three weeks. That was the average for people that didn’t take dialysis. I’ve been here since February 7th.
The doctors don’t know what’s going on. I don’t care if they don’t know what’s going on, because I’m having such a good time. And my mantra now is, “Death is on hold.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Death is on hold?
ART BUCHWALD: Yes. And here I am doing a show with you, and I’m supposed to be dead.
JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t mind at all talking about these things, living and dying, do you?
ART BUCHWALD: I don’t, for several reasons. One is that, as I say, people don’t like to talk about death. In fact, they don’t mention it.
And if someone talks about it on television or radio, it makes it OK for them to talk about it. But we can’t avoid the fact that we’re all going to go.
We can talk — and I wrote a column about this — about the hereafter. Some people believe in the hereafter, that this is one step of their way to heaven or whatever. And other people, a lot of my friends, think it’s over as soon as you go, that you die, it’s over.
So I wrote a column on that, because everybody has a different opinion on it. Also, it depends on faith. If you’re a believer, like several of my friends, then you believe they’re going to meet their people in heaven, their loved ones. At the same time, I know people who say, “I don’t know.”
And I wrote at the end of the column, I said, “The question isn’t: Where are you going? It’s: What are you doing here in the first place?”
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, a lot of people, of course, are uncomfortable talking about dying, partly because they’re just afraid.
ART BUCHWALD: Yes, fear.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you afraid of dying?
ART BUCHWALD: No, apparently, I’m not.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not?
ART BUCHWALD: Apparently, I’m not. I don’t know what’s coming. I’m not predicting anything, but it’s an interesting thing.
But in the past month, when I decided to make my choice, it’s been the happiest years of all. I’ve seen friends, caught up with all the people in my life from every different place. I’ve been talking to people. We talk about everything under the sun.
If I was at home, I wouldn’t see these people. Like most people, you just die. But here, everybody knows it, so everybody is kind to me. And even people send me cheesecakes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And as you have a chance to say good-bye to people, what do you want them, friends and your readers, to remember about you?
ART BUCHWALD: Well, I guess being the person I am, I want them to remember me for laughter, that I made them laugh. And I also want them to remember me, that I was a good guy. I mean, that’s part of the fantasy. And we have — my children and I have already planned my memorial service.
JEFFREY BROWN: You have it all planned?
ART BUCHWALD: Yes, so it’s going to be a beautiful ceremony, and it could be a very hot ticket.
JEFFREY BROWN: Art Buchwald, thanks so much for letting us come talk to you.
ART BUCHWALD: Delighted to be here. Better here than some of the places I could be.