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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,313

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This is the grave of Andy Rooney.

Born in 1919 in Albany, New York, Rooney grew up fairly well off and was able to attend Colgate University, playing football. He was drafted into the military in 1941 and would soon make his name as a war reporter. He started writing for Stars and Stripes in 1942. He proved very good at it and would be a really important figure in World War II journalism. A real legend actually, maybe not quite Ernie Pyle, but not far behind him. The old man on 60 Minutes was a long way in the future.

Rooney flew with the Eighth Air Force in 1943 on the second bombing raid over Germany. I mean, this was taking your life into your own hands, like any soldier to be fair, and he provided the goods of good war reporting. He was with the Army in 1945 when he heard the Americans had captured the Ludendorff Bridge, which meant the U.S. had now crossed the Rhine. He was the first reporter to get there. That helped make his name. He was also there when the military reached the concentration camps. He was one of the first American journalists to write this. Even after seeing so much war, it’s hard to comprehend what seeing that would have been like. At least later in life, he claimed he was a pacifist at heart (maybe this is why he went into working for the newspapers instead of fighting himself) until he saw the camps and that killed the pacifism in him. In any case, he won the Bronze Star for his work in the war.

With the war over, Rooney had to find his way back at home. Not surprisingly, journalism was his way. He had done great work in the war, but that wasn’t a guarantee he could get the kind of first rate work in the U.S. he had come to expect overseas. His break was in 1949, when Arthur Godfrey became a mentor to him. He hired Rooney to write for his Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show and worked for Godfrey for several years. They worked well together and their work together was among the most popular shows on radio and TV in the late 40s and early 50s.

This led Rooney to start writing television essays. This was an era where you could basically just write something and get it on TV if you knew the right people. If you ever wondered how Rooney ended up on 60 Minutes forever just crankily commenting on whatever he wanted, well, this is how. He basically invented that. He and Harry Reasoner worked together on a bunch of one-off TV shows that he would write and Reasoner would narrate. A lot of this stuff was about social issues of the day, including both race and gender. That included writing two episodes of the CBS documentary series Of Black America in 1968.

Rooney actually left CBS in 1971 after it refused to broadcast his essay on the Vietnam War and went to PBS for a couple of years so he could work independently. But he came back to CBS in 1973 and did the kind of one-off documentary he became known for, including a special on FDR.

Now, what we all know Rooney for is 60 Minutes. He started on that show in 1978, with his legendary end of the show segment that was him, sitting at his messy desk, talking about whatever the hell he wanted. Was Andy Rooney annoyed by spending his holidays with relatives? How about gas prices? Or what did he not like in the newspaper? Boom! Television gold!!

OK, sure, yeah, Old Man Rooney’s crankiness got the best of him. Like a lot of people, he lost the thread a bit and his behavior became embarrassing for the times he now lived in. Rooney did not like the changes of post-60s America. He wasn’t some reactionary, not politically at least. But did he articulate old white man stuff about race, about gender, about gays. Oh yes he did. Way too much. He got suspended a few times for saying legit awful things, such as that Black people were less intelligent or that homosexuality led to early death. He always apologized, but it was a bad last decade and he honestly needed to be pulled long before this. He was like many men who grew up in the New Deal who embraced a vision of midcentury America and did not respond well to its decline and the rise of other ways of living and being. He represented a LOT of liberal men from a different generation when liberalism meant something very different.

And let’s be clear, Rooney absolutely saw himself as a liberal politically. He was a New Dealer all the way. He turned hard against organized religion too. But what it meant to be a liberal was just way different in 1966 than it was in 1996.

I still remember in 1995 or maybe early 96, turning on 60 Minutes and catching only this line at the end of Rooney: “And that’s why I like him, he’s old and mean like me.” Instantly knew he was talking about Bob Dole. It was glorious.

In short, I really like Andy Rooney on principle. An old dude just talking about whatever bullshit for decades? Obviously. But there’s no question that he got really bad by the late 80s. But how do you force out Andy Rooney. Hell, the average age of 60 Minutes people by this time was like 91. His last show was in……2011. He had been on 1,097 episodes of the show. He got to cover such topics as being angry that cereal boxes had too much space in them. Fair enough Andy. Fair enough.

A month after his last 60 Minutes appearance, Rooney died after a minor surgery caused other complications. He was 92 years old. Even Rooney’s New York Times obit called him “A Cranky Voice of CBS.” Indeed.

Is it time to watch some Andy Rooney? Yes it is.

God bless you sir. God bless you.

Andy Rooney is buried in Rensselaerville Cemetery, Rensselaerville, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other World War II reporters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ernie Pyle is in Honolulu and Bill Maudlin is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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