On the red carpet at the Kennedy Center in Washington in April, the comedian and activist Jon Stewart was asked if he would ever consider running for political office.
“Show business is a good training ground ego and arrogance-wise for politics,” he told the Guardian, “but the art of compromise and the different transactional natures of what they do is generally antithetical to misanthropes who sit in rooms and write jokes. It’s too tempting to blow up meetings.”
That night, when Stewart received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the presidential historian Jon Meacham said of him: “He likes to say that he’s not an activist, not a player of the arena, but only an observer. Well, Jon, we love you – but you’re really wrong about that.”
The line between player and observer is worth keeping in mind when considering Art Buchwald, the most widely read newspaper humourist of his time, whose memorial service was held at the Kennedy Center in 2007. Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state, called him the “greatest satirist in the English language since Pope and Swift”.
Buchwald is now the subject of a biography, Funny Business, by the historical researcher Michael Hill, who draws on his most memorable columns and unpublished correspondence. Its dust jacket blurb includes praise from Meacham for an “absorbing, illuminating, and wonderfully entertaining book”.
Buchwald moved in elite circles that included Robert, Edward and Ethel Kennedy, the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and writers John Steinbeck and Irwin Shaw. But he always regarded himself as an outsider, the court jester who points out that the emperor has no clothes.
Speaking via Zoom from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Hill, 68, says: “He viewed himself as a satirist trying to wake people up about about certain issues. Good political satirists are important if not essential – and I think Buchwald would agree with this – to a healthy democracy. If a bureaucrat is doing something absurd, if a self-involved celebrity is doing something absurd, he felt it was his obligation.
“Buchwald made it his goal to always be anti-establishment. He was against anything that he perceived to be the establishment, but particularly the absurdities of the establishment. He didn’t care what political party it was: he was going to go after them. He felt very strongly about freedom of satire and freedom of speech and he was never going to be muzzled.”
Just after Bill Clinton’s election as president in 1992, for example, a friend approached Buchwald at a party in Georgetown and remarked that, now a Democrat was in the White House for the first time in 12 years, Buchwald would presumably go easy. Hill adds: “Buchwald said, ‘What are you talking about? This is my job you’re talking about. This is what I do.’”
Born in New York in October 1925, Buchwald had a wretched childhood. He almost never saw his his mother, Helen, an immigrant from Hungary, who was admitted to a mental hospital a few weeks after his birth and confined for the remaining 35 years of her life. With his father struggling to pay bills, Buchwald and his sisters were sent to foster homes.
“It left a horrible, dark impression upon him, which is part of the reason that he battled depression for the rest of his life,” Hill explains. “But the positive side of that, if there is one, was that he became very independent early on and he also realised that the only way he was going to be able to survive all the crap life was throwing at him was to be funny, be the class clown, which is what he did. He decided that I’m going to be a funny guy. So that became his goal.”
In the 1940s Buchwald dropped out of high school, joined the marines and served in the second world war. He got wind of an opportunity for veterans to go to Paris and study so bought a one-way ticket to Europe and talked his way into a job at the New York Herald Tribune.
He became the quintessential American in Paris, mingling with Ernest Hemingway and others, and writing popular columns such as “Paris After Dark”, “Mostly About People” and “Europe’s Lighter Side”.
Hill continues: “He said later that those 14 years he spent there were the happiest years of his life. A lot of his friendships that were started in Paris carried over for the rest of his life, particularly Ben Bradlee, who was without doubt one of his closest friends and defenders.”
Some friends advised Buchwald against leaving the high life in Paris but he returned to the US in 1962. He soon established himself through a Washington Post column syndicated in 500 newspapers worldwide. In 1982 he won a Pulitzer prize for outstanding commentary.
Hill explains: “He was able to tap into the beginning of anti-establishment fervour and then, of course, with Watergate, you had a whole new period of not only rebellion but disillusionment.
“He helped people keep their sanity and laugh at things, laugh at the absurdity of politicians and what they were doing. It was a respite from the grim headlines of Vietnam and Watergate and so forth. People were able to take a break and read Buchwald.”
But the brand of humour was less crass or savage than some of Buchwald’s comic heirs. “He said at one point, ‘I don’t go for the jugular’. There was a line that he didn’t cross. He could be sharp, he could be pointed, he wasn’t afraid to go at it but he wasn’t mean-spirited or profane about it.”
Buchwald himself once explained that the key to his humour was to “treat light subjects seriously and serious subjects lightly”. No topic was too big or too small or too esoteric.
Hill continues: “If somebody wanted to have a fun offbeat way to understand the political, cultural, social issues of the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s, go back and read Art Buchwald’s columns. He talked about everything. It was not only politicians and bureaucrats but it was celebrities, miniskirts, baggage claims at airports. He touched on everything.”
Hill’s favourite column is from 1964 and entitled “J Edgar Hoover Just Doesn’t Exist”, suggesting that the FBI director was a “mythical person thought up by Reader’s Digest”. It sparked a debate across the country about whether the assertion was actually true. Hoover and the FBI did not see the funny side.
Buchwald’s numerous columns mocking President Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam war ruffled so many feathers that the National Security Agency put him under surveillance. As the conflict worsened, Buchwald proposed sending in superheroes Batman and Robin (the Batman star Adam West saw the column and wrote to Buchwald promising to rush to his rescue if Johnson retaliated).
Naturally “the wit of Washington” also had a field day with President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. “He said he wished Nixon would run for a third term because he was providing such great material.
“He said he’d go after both sides but going after the left was a little bit more delicate because, if he did, they would say, ‘Aren’t you one of us? Why are you doing this?’ It didn’t deter him but he said it took a little bit more courage to take a whack at the left.”
Some of the columns are now eerie historical rhymes. In 1976 he offered “Art’s Gun Control Plan”, demanding a federal mandate to cut off “everybody’s trigger finger at birth” in an effort to curb gun violence in America. “The constitution gives everyone the right to bear arms,” he writes. “But there is nothing that says an American has to have ten fingers.”
In 1989, the celebrity tycoon Donald Trump launched an ill-fated airline with characteristic bluster and invited Buchwald to fly on it. Buchwald replied in a letter: “… thanks for all the free mileage you are handing out. As I understand, if you say the word ‘Trump’ in a gathering of over twenty people, you get forty-three miles of credit on your OnePass account.”
So what would Buchwald have made of Trump the president? Hill reckons: “He would have had the time of his life and maybe he might have been a little bit sharper with him.
“Buchwald would have fared pretty damn well in the social media Twitter age because he had a wonderful off-the-top-of-his-head wit. If he were alive today, he could win an all-out Twitter war with anybody. Like any great satirist, he could throw a good punch, he could take a punch and then he could throw a good punch back.”
Buchwald, who had three children, enjoyed playing chess and poker and smoked six to eight cigars a day – his “pacifier” – until quitting in 1988 on doctor’s orders. In the 1990s he finally went public about his long-held “dark secret” in a series of interviews revealing his lifelong struggle with depression.
He even went on tour with two friends, novelist William Styron and broadcaster Mike Wallace, who also battled the condition. They called themselves the “Blues Brothers” as they shared their stories in the hope of providing comfort.
Hill reflects: “He went public because he wanted to try and help other people deal with it. I know he heard from a lot of people who said him going public helped a lot. It was something he battled all of his life but again that’s part of what’s great about Buchwald: from early on he was always beating the odds. He wasn’t afraid of anybody.”
At one point Buchwald was everywhere with a radio show, a slot on the TV current affairs show 60 Minutes, a Broadway play, lectures all over the country and bestselling compilations of his columns. Yet 15 years after his death at the age of 81, as the torch passed to a new generation including Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver, his fame has dwindled faster than expected.
“He’s dropped from the public consciousness and it’s a shame,” Hill laments. “He has, unfortunately, been forgotten. I hope this book will bring him back to life. I hope people in this tough time might get some laughs out of it too.”