“Why are you sad that Andy Rooney passed away?” my straight friend Penny asked me after Rooney, 92, the mainstay of CBS News whose weekly commentary was an inimitable part of “60 Minutes” from 1978 to this fall, died on Nov. 4.
“He was so grouchy! And he said mean things about gay people,” she added, “how could you like him?”
I’ve been wondering that myself. Rooney wasn’t telegenic. I’m no fashion plate, but Rooney, even wearing a suit, looked as if he’d slept in his clothes. Often, listening to him, it seemed as if Rooney packed more whining into his brief commentaries than many of us would pack into a month or even a year. He complained about everything from chocolate chip cookies to standing in line to the adulation of his fans.
“It’s hard to accept being liked,” Rooney said in his last commentary on “60 Minutes” on Oct. 2, “… but thank you. Although if you do see me in a restaurant, please, just let me eat my dinner.”
Then, there were the offensive things that Rooney said: from sexist views on women (he opined that women shouldn’t be sideline TV reporters at football games because they didn’t know about the sport) to prejudiced statements about LGBT people. “There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-inflicted,” Rooney said in the December 1989 TV special “A Year with Andy Rooney.” “Too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They’re all known to lead quite often to premature death.”
Rooney was suspended for three months without pay for those remarks. He apologized on camera when he returned to “60 Minutes” just three weeks later. (The program’s ratings decreased so much that the producers ended the suspension early.) Rooney said that he’d “learned a lot” from his mistake.
More than two decades ago at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I was appalled to hear Rooney, a famous TV commentator associated with CBS News, equate “homosexual unions” with “too much food, drugs” and “premature death.” Like many of my friends then, I wondered why CBS didn’t fire him on the spot.
Yet, surprisingly, my feelings about Rooney over the years have changed. As my generation has grown older, I’ve come to realize that, as has been famously said, we all have the diseases, the prejudices, of our time. There’s no excuse for bigotry. But it’s important to remember that Rooney grew up during an era in which homophobia was the norm. While not everyone of his generation is homophobic, discomfort with same-sex attraction and couples is in the DNA of many of his contemporaries.
Despite his prejudices and grumpiness, Rooney was truly a member of the “greatest generation.” As a reporter for the Army newspaper “Stars and Stripes” in World War II, Rooney flew on bombing missions, won a Bronze Star for his coverage of the battle of Saint-Lo in Normandy and reported on the horrors of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Thekla, Germany. Years later, Rooney said that when he was in the Army and stationed in the south, he was arrested for riding with black soldiers in the back of a (segregated) bus.
I never had the illusion that I’d have been Rooney’s BFF. Yet, I came to love his work. Rooney was a first-rate writer. As a scribe, I can’t tell you how much talent and work it takes to pen incisive, precise, engaging, yet, brief commentaries about life in all its facets — from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“A writer’s job is to tell the truth,” Rooney said, “I believe that if all the truth were known about everything in the world it would be a better place to live.”
Your writing, through its wit and wisdom, made the world a better place, Mr. Rooney. R.I.P.