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Funny Business in Washington? Depend on Art Buchwald to Get a Laugh Out of It

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Art Buchwald plays tennis and chess, but his real hobby is worrying. He worries about his daughter’s grades at college, the Washington Redskins, making planes, his blood pressure, his friends’ blood pressure. For a while he worried about where his next idea was coming from because Jimmy Carter seemed to be poor column fodder.

Then along came Bert Lance. Better still, for Buchwald’s purposes, there went Bent Lance. Now Buchwald is talking with a mixture of civic concern and professional relish about the Carter administration: “The sad thing is that they didn’t learn anything from Watergate. I voted for Carter, but he’s turning out to be as contemptuous and arrogant and conspiracy-minded as Nixon ever was.”

By transforming that kind of indignation into humor, Buchwald, 52, produces not only occasional catharsis but also a column that runs in 500 newspapers and earns him more than $200,000 a year. (He also makes at least 50 speeches at $5,000 per and has published 18 books of collected works, which have sold well enough to earn him about $300,000.) Although Buchwald’s satire can be wickedly imaginative—a theory, for example, that what the country needs is not fewer chemical additives but stronger white rats—he takes a quite methodical approach to being funny.

Most of his ideas come from newspaper clippings, which he carries around in his pockets while they germinate. He likes to try out ideas on bystanders. “Did you see that story about the government not being able to spend $22 billion in the budget?” he’ll say, keeping an eye out for reaction. “That ought to be a column.”

He writes three a week, each at least five days before it appears in his home paper, the Washington Post. The legend is that a column takes him only 45 minutes to write; that’s flattering but not always true. “I know he’s having trouble,” says his secretary, Jeannie Aiyer, “if he starts walking around.” Buchwald often shows his column to political writers Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, his neighbors in a Pennsylvania Avenue office building (two blocks from the White House). Once he gets their criticism, he ignores it.

Finished or not, at 12:30 p.m. he walks to the Sans Souci restaurant for filets de soles grillés or veal paillard with iced tea. (Buchwald has been known to sample a glass of Pouilly Fuissé.) The Sans Souci is not the ex officio White House dining room it was in the Johnson and Nixon days but still attracts a lot of powers that be, along with a few that were. “The food is good here,” he explains. So is the attention. To Buchwald’s credit, he does not pretend discomfiture at being seated every day in centrally located table #12 and holding court as politicians, lawyers and journalists stop by to drop a few names and/or bons mots.

On the road Buchwald generally sticks to what he calls the Speech—a description of his career—to which he adds 10 or 15 minutes of topical material and a question-answer session. Men usually ask him, seriously, about the economy; women wonder what his wife is like. When he has a book out, as with the current All-Time-Best-Of collection Down the Seine and Up the Potomac (dating back 25 years), he offers himself up to TV talk shows to plug it.

It is a busy, interesting life that began rather badly. Born in 1925 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Art grew up in foster homes-in New York City, then joined the Marines with a forged consent slip at 16. After serving in the Pacific during World War II, he headed for Paris to study French at the Alliance Franchise, although not even a high school graduate. He worked briefly as a legman for Variety, then despite an almost total absence of credentials wangled a job as a movie critic and nightlife columnist for the New York Herald Tribune’s European edition. When his column prospered, he became the darling of expatriate Americans. He surprised a lot of people—including his family—by leaving Paris in 1961 for the Washington Post and the challenge of writing a funny political column.

Buchwald is not entirely at ease with his background. It has been variously reported that he ended up in foster homes because his mother died, became seriously ill or ran off. He similarly does not recall having any trouble making the adjustment from Paris to Washington, while friends talk of it as a traumatic time for him. Buchwald was long separated from his father, Joseph, a curtain maker, and they became close only when Art moved back to the U.S. “Humor was a defense,” Buchwald says of his unhappy childhood. “I realized when I was a kid that I could get approval by saying things that made people laugh.”

He saves digs for friends. With a straight face, Buchwald once asked Evans if he realized he could make twice as much money by getting rid of Novak. Ben Bradlee, Post executive editor and a close friend, says, smiling, “What Artie really likes is to finish his column so he has nothing to do but make trouble between his friends, sow dissent, poison wells.”

Secretary Jeannie Aiyer sees Buchwald’s life somewhat differently. “His biggest problem is that he’s too nice,” she says. “If I didn’t pick up his phone first, he would make more commitments than he could possibly handle or spend all his time talking to people, including the woman who calls literally every day from Montana to see if there are any jobs open in the office.”

His wife, Ann, a fashion consultant when he met her in Paris and married her in 1952, is now a literary agent for Washington journalists. “People always ask me if Art is funny at home and I always say ‘Yes.’ But mostly he is very balanced and calm. When he comes home I can’t tell if he’s written a wonderful column or met a king or had a dismal day.”

Not everyone is so enchanted with Buchwald, of course. In his Paris days the late film producer Walter Wanger called Buchwald a “syphilis spirochete” for writing a column about a premiere without mentioning the movie. Journalist Joe McGinniss, in his book Heroes, tells how he was rebuffed when he tried to introduce Buchwald to a Medal of Honor winner who was a great admirer of his column. “It’s true,” Buchwald admits. “They had both been drinking a little and wanted to ride along with me on a train trip. I just didn’t have the time.” Personal complaints of this nature are rare.

His columns, on the other hand, draw copious vitriolic mail. The all-time most hated column was one he wrote in 1964 suggesting that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover did not really exist but had been invented by the Reader’s Digest. (One woman even cornered him at a speech to demand, “Where do you get your information?”) Nearly any mention of gun control or religion brings letters with such endearments as, “You are a sick, lust-crazed fanatical fanatic.”

Buchwald insists, however, that he has never had an unpleasant confrontation with anyone he satirized. “I try to get the sword in and out before they know they’ve been savaged,” he says. Even Presidents usually react with good humor, in public at least.

Jimmy Carter press secretary Jody Powell says his boss reads Buchwald regularly and adds, with restrained enthusiasm, “He enjoys him.”

Ron Nessen says, enigmatically, “President Ford read the Post every day, but I never heard him talking about Buchwald.” Nessen himself, a sometime target, calls Buchwald “the most consistently funny writer of that type we have.”

Richard Nixon followed Buchwald faithfully before the election, but afterward “did not read newspapers,” according to former communications director Herb Klein. He also recalls that Buchwald came over to him in a restaurant in 1969 and offered to send him a case of California wine in gratitude for the column material the new Administration was providing. Buchwald, in any case, says he is still trying to live down being left off the White House enemies list.

Pierre Salinger was ordered to read out loud a Buchwald column about Lyndon Johnson at lunch one day after he had touted it to the President. “I never saw 20 more stonefaced people in my life,” Salinger says. “Buchwald was never mentioned again.”

John Kennedy was a Buchwald admirer, though Salinger recalls he did bristle about a column over cancellation of the White House subscription to the New York Herald Tribune. When Kennedy announced the blockade of Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis on the day Buchwald was to host the biweekly poker party that included Salinger, David Brinkley and other media types, Buchwald phoned to ask, “Does this mean I should cancel the cold cuts?” It did.

Buchwald was still writing in Paris when he did a column that irked Eisenhower’s press secretary Jim Hagerty so much he denounced it as “unadulterated rot.” Buchwald answered, “I have been known to write adulterated rot but never unadulterated rot.”

The Buchwalds also became friendly with Robert Kennedy, though when RFK announced his presidential candidacy, Buchwald—returning to his policy of avoiding politicians—backed away. (A bust of the late senator, a gift from Ethel Kennedy, sits on the Buchwald piano.)

At various times, Buchwald says, he admired such politicians as Johnson, the Kennedys and Hubert Humphrey, but never without reservation—”There hasn’t been anybody I’d say ‘I’ll follow you anywhere’ to.”

His circle of friends resembles one of those polyglot World War II movie platoons. Georgetown drugstore owner “Doc” Dalinsky is his closest buddy—Bradlee calls him “Artie’s father image.” Buchwald also pals with lawyer (and Washington Redskins owner) Edward Bennett Williams, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano Jr. and, when he’s summering on Martha’s Vineyard, such literary characters as novelist William Styron.

These days Buchwald seems as happy as a worrier can be. Having emerged unscarred but not unscathed by “typical problems of ’60s parents,” he is proud of his adopted children. One daughter, Connie, 22, is married, and the other, Jennifer, 21, in college. Son Joel, 24, works for a documentary film producer. “Once the children were gone I wondered if we would sit at opposite ends of the couch with nothing to say to each other,” Ann says. “But the first night Jennifer went off to school we took off all our clothes and went skinny-dipping in the pool. I haven’t worried since.”

While Buchwald has surprisingly not yet won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, he has earned as much acclaim as a journalist could aspire to. “We’d all be different without Artie to remind us how ridiculous and frail we are,” Ben Bradlee says. “And he often does it in one line. ‘We should solve the Panama Canal problem by filling it in and giving it back.’ Perfect!”

Buchwald had a fling at playwriting with Sheep on the Runway, a small hit. A movie he wrote in collaboration with Russell Baker of the New York Times was never produced (“It was Baker’s fault,” Buchwald explains). He tried TV as a commentator on the short-lived The Entertainers and is writing his second comic novel. Nonetheless he finds the column more than rewarding.

“Nothing I do—or Russ Baker or Herblock does—is going to bring down a government,” he says. “But no system in the world works better than ours, and maybe over the years, little by little, we can have an effect.”

Buchwald has even managed to come to terms with his own success. “I spent two and a half years in analysis because I felt guilty about doing well,” he says. “Now I tell myself, to hell with it, enjoy it. You deserve it.”