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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Death of a Giant

Every generation includes a few people who don't entirely fit the mold. The GIs, or, as we now call them, "Greatest" generation, were good at cooperating, using the left (rational) part of their brains, and building institutions, but they had a shocking trust in authority, especially after they began to exercise it themselves. But they also included Joseph Heller, who wrote the most extraordinary anti-war book of the twentieth century about the war that he and his generation had helped to win, and Art Buchwald, the humorist who died on Thursday and who was, in his own way, the conscience of his contemporaries during their worst period in power, the Vietnam War.

Buchwald was born in 1925--too late, for most of his contemporaries, to see action in the great conflict--but when he was 16 or 17, in 1942, he lied his way into the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific. Although it wasn't until he wrote an autobiography in the 1990s that I knew this, he had an extraordinarily difficult childhood; his mother went into an institution shortly after he was born and remained there for the rest of her life and he grew up mainly in orphanages. He had three older sisters, I believe, and his father once blurted out that his birth had been an unintended accident. He reacted to all this by deciding to make people laugh.

Beginning in the 1950s and extending almost to his death Thursday from kidney failure, Buchwald was a humor columnist, first in Paris, then in Washington. His most famous column, which can easily be found, is about explaining Thanksgiving Day to the French, but it was far from the funniest. In 1955 he was covering the wedding of film star Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, of the Grimaldi family, in Monaco, the biggest wedding by far of the decade. On the day of the wedding he published a column in the Paris Herald Tribune, explaining that he had not received an invitation because of the centuries-old feud between the Grimaldi family and the Buchwald family. A ticket arrived later in the day. He also hated exercise and once wrote an hilarious series about a rafting trip with the Robert Kennedy family through the Grand Canyon. On the last day of the trip they all climbed a mountain, but he stayed in his sleeping bag. "Why don't you want to climb the mountain?" Ethel Kennedy asked. "Because it's there," he said. He also played tennis with far more enthusiasm than skill, and wrote at least one column extolling his favorite shot, the lob.

But to Boomers like myself, Buchwald stood out because he was practically the first GI to speak openly about the insanity of the Vietnam War. One of his first, and still, his most chilling column on the subject appeared on March 9, 1965, literally the week that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign began. He imagined what would have happened if Barry Goldwater had been elected: a Viet Cong terrorist attack would have led, first, to "tit-for-tat" raids on North Vietnam, and then to a sustained bombing campaign. Democrats, he said, would have protested Goldwater's new war and argued for negotiations, and Russia and France would have called for a reconvened Geneva conference, but Goldwater would have refused this proposal. Instead he would have issued a White Paper blaming Hanoi for the war. "It all seems far-fetched when you read it and I may have let my imagination run away with itself, because even Barry Goldwater, had he become President, wouldn't have gone that far," Buchwald concluded. "But fortunately, with President Johnson at the helm, we don't even have to think about it." Some of his columns later that year look positively clairvoyant. On July 29, the day after President Johnson had told the country we would send 175,000 men to Vietnam by the end of the year and that more would be sent later as necessary, he entitled his column "escalation." "The American government," he wrote, "announced today that 1000 U.S. troops have just landed in South Vietnam. These 5000 men will be used to protect airfields and vital installations around Saigon, although officials did not rule out that the 15,000 combat-ready soldiers, supported by 10,000 aviation personnel would be used to take the fight to the enemy." By the end of the column a mythical spokesman was speaking of a million Americans.

Vietnam was not the only foreign adventure for which Buchwald skewered LBJ. Rereading a series from the first half of 1965, when the President was literally on top of the world, I was amazed at how acutely Buchwald had sized him up and identified his fatal flaws. The President's secretiveness, sensitivity to criticism, and treatment of his staff were the target of withering columns. When Marines went into the Dominican Republic, Buchwald on May 23 summarized the history of a Latin American country, "La Enchilada:" the assassination of strongman General El Finco a few years earlier, his eventual replacement by a reformer, Don Juan Innhel, followed in 1963 by Don Juan's overthrow by a junta of generals, "much, of course, to our surprise." Then, after military governments succeeded one another, a ruling general warned the American Ambassador that if a civilian government took power, it would go Communist. "The word Communist was immediately decoded and sent to the White House," he wrote. "Bells started ringing all over Washington and seven paratrooper divisions were furiously dispatched to La Enchilada. Don Juan's forces and Santos dos Santos's forces were fighting in the streets. First the United States asked the rebels to give up.They refused. Then they asked the Santos forces to give up. They refused. They they asked that the Communists give up. They couldn't find any Communists."

The Vietnam war was still going strong in August 1967, and so was Buchwald. One morning he fantasized about how the story of the Edsel--a car Ford released under Robert McNamara--might have gone differently. Catching the ethos of his contemporaries perfectly, he told how Ford executives might have refused to drop the car, instead deciding to build more and bigger Edsels until, by the end of the column, they were ready to drop all their other cars to make it a success. It wasn't necessary to use the word "Vietnam" by that time. Nixon, of course, suffered from many of the same problems as Johnson, and he, too, provided plenty of raw material for the Buchwald wit. In December 1972 the Nixon White House refused to allow the Washington Post's society columnist to cover state dinners, and Buchwald said this was really no problem. He provided a template that could be used to describe any such occasion just by filling in the blanks. Several paragraphs quoted President Nixon's after-dinner speech:

""In all my travels around the world, I have never been in a more interesting country than (blank). Pat and I remember the first time we got off the plane at your wonderful capital of (blank), and how the crowds at the airport (blanked) us.
""The country of (blank) has shown by its actions that it is a true friend of the United States. Not only have you supported us in our (blank) against Communist aggression, but you have proven that you can make it on your own, as long as you have the military strength to survive.
"Your nation has sent us many fine people who have become worthwhile American citizens. I need only mention (blank), who invented the (blank), Dr. (blank) who found a cure for (blank), and, lest we forget the women, Mrs. (blank), whose ethnic pies and cakes have become famous throughout our land.'
"After the toasts, (blank) and his chorus came out on stage to entertain the guests. They sang Stephen Foster songs. But in the middle of 'Ol' Black Joe,' a young lady in the chorus reached into her bosom and pulled out a sign which said "STOP THE BOMBING."
"She was led off the stage by two Secret Servicemen while the chorus sang 'God Bless America.'. . .

"Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, when asked about the 'Stop the Bombing' incident, denied it had taken place."

A little more than a year ago I watched the film Good Night and Good Luck in Harvard Square. As I left the theater with my eyes full of tears, I saw an elderly couple still in their seats, looking similarly moved. "They were giants in those days," I said, and they nodded.

Buchwald, in his way, was one of them.


Anonymous said...

During an interview, Heller was asked if World War II was like Catch-22. Heller responded that the book was not about the last war but the next one. The interview was prior to Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, beautiful tribute, and so true. But if Buchwalkd was too young to see combat, he was not tail-end GI Generation, he was first-wave Silent. Let's not forget "the filling in the generation gap", as forgettable as we are!

RoseCovered Glasses said...

Great post!

We hear at the Vets Home in Minnesota try to emulate Buchwald in poking fun at the establishment once a month in Rose Colored Glasses:


But of course no one did it like he did.

Your article reflects deep reflection on the contributions of two real heros of the literary world.

Thanks for writing it.


Anonymous said...

To Patricia Mathews -- Because Buchwald lied about his age and saw actual combat, David Kaiser has made him an Honorary GI.

The Wonkette...

David Kaiser said...


In one of my first conversations with Bill Strauss, he described my son, born 12/11/82, class of 2000, as an "asterisk Millennial," or *Millennial." This is an important concept. My older brother, born 1943, college class of 1964, is a *Silent. Jimmy Carter is a *Silent. Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) is a *Boomer. And Buchwald is a *GI.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Let me try this again: Prof. Kaiser, have you seen this?