Andy Rooney died yesterday. He was 92. I’ve been watching 60 Minutes as long as I can remember. My parents would always put it on every Sunday which was usually dinner time in my house and that generally meant that I watched it too.
Andy Rooney didn’t begin his show-ending monologues until 1978 when it replaced the Point/Counterpoint segment featuring Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. I didn’t take much notice of Rooney until I was a teenager in the 1980s and had taken an interest in writing and journalism and harbored dreams of being a newspaper opinion columnist. Rooney personified the folksy, grumpy, common-sense curmudgeon and could make you roll your eyes, but sometimes could also make you wish you’d just said what he said.
In the years I watched him hold forth on subjects as varied as chairs, the Super Bowl, the job of the US Presidency, umbrellas, ice cream cones, barbers, and the random items found in people’s backpacks, I had always wanted him to do a segment on books.
It seemed an obvious Rooney segment. Always touched with a gift for making a larger point to say about something small from his own experience, I just knew that one day he would finally get around to giving TV viewers a tour of the bookshelf behind his desk. Years passed and it never came, and yet my curiosity persisted. Finally in 2007, working late one night in my office at BusinessWeek I wrote a short email to 60 Minutes with the subject line “For Andy Rooney”:
I’ve watched your segments on “60 Minutes” every Sunday since I was a very young kid. I didn’t always get what you were saying, but I got enough to know that I liked you. It probably had something to do with me getting into the media business myself.
All these years you’ve talked about the silly things that people send you, your junk mail, the mess on your desk, the stuff you find in your attic and other curiously revealing trivia. But I’ve always wanted to know more about what we see in the background behind you every week: Your bookshelf.
When I visit someone’s home I sometimes find it interesting, if I can do it politely, to peek at what’s on their bookshelf. You’ve been inviting me and millions of other people into your office for years. As someone who like you, values the written word and the simple pleasure of reading a great book, I’m curious about what’s on that bookshelf of yours and why. I doubt it’s junk, and I’m certain it would be revealing. How about a little tour?
I’m certain Rooney never read that email, and though I can’t prove it, I’m betting his producer did. Because two months later, Rooney closed the April 22, 2007 edition of 60 Minutes with a segment that included a few of his favorite books (Link goes to the video, which is not embeddable). They were: three dictionaries; a heavily used edition of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. Walter Lippman’s A Preface To Morals; four leather-bound volumes by Charles Darwin; and the fifth edition of The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzum and Henry Graff, also heavily used.
Two years later I got the chance to meet Rooney. The occasion was the 2009 Deadline Club Awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. I was a finalist in the science and technology reporting category, for a series of stories I wrote for BusinessWeek.com called “Unconnected America,” which examined how the lack of access to broadband Internet connections affected people in various walks of life and in different places. I lost out to a Time Magazine cover story, “The Clean Energy Myth.”
There was before the banquet a cocktail party lasting an hour or so, and Rooney happened to be there. And I noticed that my then-colleague, BusinessWeek writer David Kiley was talking to him rather enthusiastically at a set of chairs surrounding a table, as if he knew him well. It turns out he did, and so I ventured over to where they were sitting and waited for a chance to politely introduce myself.
It came. I told him about the letter I had written him and before I could get to the part of his segment on books, he cut me off.
“And I didn’t write back, right?”
“No, and I didn’t expect you to,” I said. I proceeded to tell him about the segment on books, and that I had always been curious about them because I had been watching so long. “Since I was a kid,” I said.
“Well how old are you?” I was 38 at the time, but my answer was “I’m not quite 40.”
At this he got a little indignant. He called out across the table to a female friend to whom he referred by a last name which I did not catch. “You’re really 39? Hey, do you believe this guy is 39?” he said to her.
“If he is he’s very lucky,” she said to him and grinned at me.
Then he looked back at me. With a scowl and a determined nod he said “Well you look older.”
I couldn’t argue with that. And I couldn’t help but smile at having been insulted by Andy Rooney.