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Satirist Art Buchwald Passes Away at Age 81

January 18, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Last spring, Jeffrey Brown had a chance to talk to the humorist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist about life, laughs and illness. Here’s part of that conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Through more than five decades, Art Buchwald wrote 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 ’60s, 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.

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.

ART BUCHWALD, Humorist and Columnist: 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.

Political material

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: 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 it for 55 years. So, yes, they provided me with material. To this day, this president has been very good to me.

We can party now. We've got the place until 5:00.

'Death is on hold'

JEFFREY BROWN: Buchwald couldn't help but enjoy life and make others laugh even as he neared his own death. Last February, suffering from kidney failure, he decided to forgo dialysis that could possibly prolong his life at what he considered too burdensome a cost. He entered the Washington Home and Community Hospices for what were expected to be his final days.

FRIEND OF BUCHWALD: This is the moment.

ART BUCHWALD: Oh, boy.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was feted by friends and dignitaries, such as the French ambassador. Then, to the surprise of everyone, including his doctors, he lived on for almost a year, and left the hospice, wrote many more columns and even a final book.

ART BUCHWALD: 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.

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.

Remembering his humor

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 last month, when I decided to make my choice, it's been the happiest years of all.

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.

RAY SUAREZ: Art Buchwald died last night at his son's home in Washington. He was 81.