60 minutes

Andy Rooney unleashes his special brand of cantankerous commentary

While many a prominent dignitary has appeared at the Fletcher School—Kofi Annan, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger among them—on November 18, the school hosted a different kind of celebrity when Andy Rooney, the legendary commentator for CBS’ news magazine “60 Minutes,” delivered the Charles Francis Adams Lecture.

andy rooney at the podium

Andy Rooney © Ellen Callaway

Known to millions for his wry, sometimes-controversial essays—a signature of “60 Minutes” for the past 27 years—Rooney has won three Emmy Awards.

About 350 people jammed ASEAN Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus to hear what was on Rooney’s amusing, often politically incorrect mind.

Although he will be 86 in January, Rooney has made few concessions to age, but for his slow gait and stooped shoulders. (He had to be dissuaded from driving his car up to Fletcher from New York.) With his bushy eyebrows, whiny voice and trademark wit, Rooney looked in fine form as he approached the podium. After Fletcher’s Executive Associate Dean Gerard Sheehan introduced him as “an American original,” America’s favorite curmudgeon took center stage.

In his speech, billed as “60 Minutes with Andy Rooney,” the commentator griped and groused over everything from consumerism to capitalism—while the audience laughed, applauded and occasionally winced over his remarks.

Cooks, mechanics & doctors
“The service industry in this country is now bigger than the manufacturing segment. There’s something wrong with that,” he said. “It’s like a restaurant that has great waiters, but no one in the kitchen who knows how to cook. The service may be good, but the food is terrible. We need chefs; we don’t need waiters. We need mechanics; we don’t need salesmen. We need doctors; we don’t need more health plans.”

The triumph of salesmanship over service was another target. “We’re selling things better than we’re making them,” he said. “Last Saturday I took my car to the dealer in Stamford, Conn. It needed some minor work. I went in, and there were five people standing around, and I said, ‘Where’s the service manager?’ They were all salesmen waiting for me to come in to buy a new car. They said the service department is closed on Saturday. Now, if I can buy a car on Saturday why the hell can’t I get one fixed on Saturday?”

He took potshots at the state of America’s political leadership. “We’re short of good politicians,” he declared. “I hope some of you are headed in that direction, although it probably doesn’t appeal to you right now. But we’re in desperate need of good men and women to lead us. I don’t know why it is that we don’t often get the best people in the highest jobs in this country.”

Without citing George W. Bush by name, he aimed a few barbs his way. “The president of the United States should be the smartest person in the country and one of the smartest in the world. God knows that hasn’t happened lately. I don’t want to go any further, but, you know, I have been thinking of moving to Canada.”

Arms vs. peace
Rooney struck a responsive chord when he lashed out at the nation’s priorities that favor the military over domestic spending: “We’re spending vast amounts of money on warships that can’t carry cargo, on aircraft that can’t carry passengers, on tanks that look great in the newsreels but don’t work in battle, on billion-dollar submarines that have no use at all anywhere, on nuclear weapons, and on a long list of other weapons that’ll be thrown away in 10 years because they’re obsolete, even though they were never used.

“We continue making [weapons] because we’ve got a screwed-up economy that’s dependent on the arms industry instead of the peace industry. What comparable amounts of money are we spending on a cure for cancer, for AIDS, for protecting our ozone layer? Why can’t we spend these billions on better books, better libraries, more museums, more schools?”

Rooney spent considerable time talking about the state of television news, displaying a love-hate relationship with his own profession. “As bad as the television news has become, it is still 20 minutes of the best [television] there is. I watch news every single night of the week. I enjoy it greatly. That’s partially because I have a drink of bourbon with it, but I like the news, too, and I am quite defensive about the people in our business. I hate the people who are running the networks whose only interest is money.”

Nor did he have any compunction about criticizing his own news division. Rooney seemed to agree with conservative critics who charge that CBS News and news anchor Dan Rather have a liberal bias. “…I am very critical of some of the people at CBS, even though they’re my friends, because it is so apparent what their political leanings are.”

He also made reference to the infamous “60 Minutes II” story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard record. Reported by Dan Rather during the 2004 presidential campaign, the story was later discredited, complete with an on-air apology by Rather.

“I just object to the bias that so many newsmen reveal inadvertently,” Rooney said. “That’s what happened with this thing of Dan Rather’s that got out. There was just no question that they wanted to run it because it was negative toward Bush, and I think they let that obscure their judgment. I don’t think it was dishonest, but they just were not able to set aside their personal and political opinions and look at it clearly.”

By the end of his talk, Rooney had charmed, challenged and undoubtedly irritated a few members of the audience. When Dean Sheehan presented the ornery octogenarian with a crystal globe and the latest issue of The Fletcher Forum, the student policy journal, the newsman looked down at the gift. “Ah, I was just reading this the other night,” he quipped irreverently, while the audience roared its approval.