Monday, April 03, 2006

'If you have to go, the way you go is a big deal'

So says Art Buchwald, one of my favorite writers and grandfathers of political snark. He's talking of death, of course, because he is dying. But he's doing it in style; skip the dialysis, bring on the Mickey Dees.

He's in a select circle. One that, oddly enough, is also dying: the old school newsie commentator. Royko, Ivins, Buchwald, and to a lesser extent, Vidal and Vonnegut, all cynical idealists, dedicated their lives to chronicling failures and foibles of both the influential and everyday American. All of them heroes of my youth, voices unique, unbound and unafraid. One could argue that folks like Anna Quindlen, Maureen Dowd and even Krugman are their heirs apparent, but I wouldn't.

Don't get me wrong: Quindlen's One True Thing is so forthright and poignant that I couldn't dare read it today, and could barely stay dry-eyed the first three times. Dowd eviscerates with words so barbed they might be outlawed in some countries. And Krugman is a master, though predominantly in economics.

But always, always, these writers bring gloves before the duel, dressed in their Sunday finery and seeming to share a wink before the big show.

Like the WWF of writing, or, unfortunately, today's Senate: you sense, somewhere deep down inside, the animosity cloaks camaradarie and it's really all just a big fakeout. Contrast that with Royko, scrapping for every bit of work, gouging into the sides of Chicago's politicos like an oversized burr. He might've hit the bigtime, but he wasn't one to hobnob with the bigwigs.

No nicknames for him (unlike Dowd's pet names from both Presidents Bush). No quarter, either. Curmudgeonly, sometimes downright nasty, Royko refused to work for magnate Rupert Murdoch. "No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper," he said, leaving to write for the Chicago Tribune after Murdoch bought The Sun-Times.

Born later than Vonnegut and Buchwald, Royko was too young to enlist in WWII. But he shared with those two veterans the same literary fearlessness and straight-shooting nature. Oddly enough, their female counterpart, Molly Ivins, is neither really of their era nor from an early life of hardscrabble existence. Yet Ivins shares their infectous love of serious writing dipped in humor and the confrontational audacity necessary to bring the high and mighty down a few notches.

I often wonder what separates these laureates of the newspaper era from their successors, just as overall subsequent generations are removed from the Greatest Generation. Were the ethics that different then? Have the rules changed, and are politesse, elbow-rubbing and social climbing more important than getting the story right? Tiny thread, yes, but a connection runs through them that's lacking in our present world. Ever the cynical idealist, I half-believe that locating, underscoring and somehow eliminating those differences will be enough to reanimate and focus a club that's now more exclusive and exclusionary than illuminating and expansive. The cynical part of me knows at the same time it's impossible. We'll see no more of their ilk, for whatever reasons. Certainly there are plenty, most having to do with keeping a paycheck and career.

As Art Buchwald prepares to meet death with the same irascible affection he embraced both his life and his calling, we're not just ruminating on the loss of this amazingly talented and dedicated writer, but the impending demise of his chosen field.

Would that his literary scions not go so gently into that night.
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