Andy Rooney, Joan Didion, and the Aging Cultural Critic
Andy Rooney, who for 30 years capped CBS news magazine 60 Minutes with his sweeping commentary on everything from his inability to understand Usher to his perplexing number of shoes, died this weekend at age 92. He never stopped critiquing the world around him. As a new generation of cultural commentators reflects on Rooney's legacy, let's remember to avoid following his example.
"People have often told me I said the things they are thinking themselves. I probably haven't said anything here that you didn't already know, or have already thought," Rooney said in his final 60 Minutes segment on October 2. "That's what a writer does," he continued. "There aren't too many original thoughts in the world. A writer's job is to tell the truth."
But the truth changes based on who's telling it—in this case, a white man born in 1919 who saw the world from his seat in a darkened library of hardcover books. Rooney is often described as a curmudgeon, a commentator skilled at wryly identifying the worst in just about everything. But he was at his crankiest when assessing anything new, rejecting change in everything from the ballooning size of cereal boxes to the rise of e-books. And as he aged, his ire was increasingly directed at a nation of people who looked less and less like him.
"You know the world has passed you by when your newspaper carries a page 1 story about the death of someone you've never heard of," Andy Rooney said in 1994. "It isn't bad enough I never heard of Kurt Cobain. I never heard of grunge rock or Nirvana either. Everything about Kurt Cobain makes me suspicious. This picture shows him in a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. I doubt that Kurt Cobain ever did enough work to wear a hole in his pants."
Since that cultural commentary 17 years ago, Rooney filed several other statements that placed his wry cultural dissections in a sadder context. In 2002, he said that it was "ridiculous to have these women down on the sidelines doing football reports," saying that pairing attractive women with football was like finding a beautiful strand of hair on his stick of butter. “I know all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig," he said in 2007, "but today’s baseball stars are all guys named Rodriguez to me."
He continued to occupy a soapbox on a major news network until the day he died. When Rooney taped his final 60 Minutes segment last month, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager said that Rooney would “always have the ability to speak his mind on ‘60 Minutes’ when the urge hits him.” Never mind that the world had passed Rooney by decades before—we were expected to listen simply because he had not stopped talking.
This is not to say that our nation is marching inevitably toward progress, that each new generation is better than the last. Nor is it to say that our cultural commentators should be disposed of at a certain age. Reading Joan Didion's new memoir this week, I was struck by the importance of an American voice with the relevance to carry us with her through the decades.
As a young writer, Didion defined the cultural disorder of the 1960s with journalistic memoir that captured her generation's approach to everything from drug use to organized feminism. Now 76, Didion has turned her critical eye inward, critiquing her own memory, privilege, and mortality while leaving the zeitgeist-defining work to others. Didion's work—like Rooney's—has always been highly personal. But as she's aged, she's smartly edited her perspective into something more human than generational. Rooney never stopped complaining about the existence of Justin Bieber.
Andy Rooney thought he was telling us all what we were already thinking. In fact, he was never able to see outside his specific place in the world, alone in his dark library.