Though he never had to go through the grind of running for office, humorist Art Buchwald over the years has earned himself a presidential rite--a periodic state of the union address. His latest is called "You CAN Fool All of the People All of the Time" (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $16.95) and, like his 20 other volumes, is a compilation of his syndicated columns, which have been written over six presidencies.
Buchwald was in town this week, partly to plug the book and partly to enjoy another unofficial, more occasional rite--a tribute by USC's Friends of the Library on Tuesday. He went to USC in '45, majoring in, as he puts it, "extracurricular activities," and made friendships that last to this day. So the place enjoys a warm spot in his heart.
"I was a New York kid who got discharged from the Marines at El Toro and went up to SC," Buchwald said. "I conned myself in. I had gone to Forest Hills High School but ran off to the military before I graduated. I got into college without a diploma. A year later they found me out and wanted to make me a 'special student.' I didn't want any of that.
Days at USC
"While I was at SC, I was managing editor of Wampus, which was a humor magazine. I wrote for the varsity show and the Daily Trojan. Jess Unruh was in my class. David Wolper was my best friend. He went into television. I went to Paris under the GI Bill and stayed for 14 years."
Buchwald has lived in Washington for 23 years. The venue has been like a tireless oil well to him, pumping from a seemingly bottomless pool of usable material.
"It's a good town. You can feed off it," he said. "Right now the Gorbachev issue is marvelous. We're more afraid of wit and charisma than ever before. People are huffing and puffing about other people who have better PR."
What is less well known in Foggy Bottom, and perhaps elsewhere, is that when as an impecunious Marine Buchwald envisioned the ultimate good life for himself, Beverly Hills seemed the place to live it.
"I'd hang out at the Actors Lab," he said. "I wanted to be a screenwriter. My dream was to be rich and famous. It might've happened had it not been for Paris."
Maybe people who are rich and famous don't always think of themselves that way. The fact is that Buchwald has done very well for himself, with his syndication in more than 500 newspapers--and those books. His columns are a reminder that humor is a form of perspective. It makes things a bit less portentous and frantic, and it always operates in the most difficult mode to get a perspective on--the present.
"The most dangerous development we've had recently is the breakup of the telephone company. When it was a monolith, you didn't fear it. Now you're at their mercy--you can't even get your phone fixed. I also say that the most frightening words you can say in the United States right now are: 'The computer is down.'
"Once I was guest speaker at a function at the Century Plaza Hotel. I went to the desk and gave my name for a room. 'The computer doesn't have your name. I can't give you a room,' the clerk said. I said, 'If I gave you my name, would that be OK?' I got the room, but she had to think about it. It's like I didn't exist if the computer didn't say so."
How did he come by the title of his latest book?
"Simple: I listened to Ronald Reagan speak. There's something about the man. He can say anything and get away with it. The other day was a good example, when he said he was giving a promotion to Margaret Heckler by removing her from the Cabinet and making her ambassador to Ireland. And 80% of the people believed him. Yes, Ronald Reagan has been very good for me these past five years. I give him a 10. You won't see another like him on the horizon."