Discussing the book "Layed back in Washington" and interviewing Art Buchwald
BROADCAST: Feb. 1982 | DURATION: 00:49:04
Discussing the book "Layed back in Washington" and interviewing Art Buchwald.
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Studs Terkel You know, there's an old phrase, "the times are out of joint." In this case that's an understatement. And how does someone who is witty, a columnist, a very funny observer of the human comedy, specifically the American human comedy, Art Buchwald I'm referring to, his columns are syndicated and carried here in the "Sun-Times". How can he be satirical? If the situation is innately so. This'll be one of the themes we'll discuss with Art Buchwald my guest. His new book is a collection of his best stuff and it's very funny stuff, indeed, but more than that, biting and perceptive. Called "Laid Back in Washington", and it's published by Putnam. Laid back no doubt the style of our presidency at the moment. So Art Buchwald's my guest. [pause in recording] So let's pick up with the introduction, that theme. How can you be funny if -- how can you top the reality?
Art Buchwald Yeah, this is laid back. Okay. You're not funny. You're not writing satire anymore, all you're doing is rewriting the front pages of the newspapers. And you take a situation like the Stockman affair where he blew the whistle on Reagan in "Atlantic Monthly" on the assumption that nobody in Washington reads "The Atlantic Monthly", and you got Richard Allen and they've given four stories already of how he took a thousand dollars, and you read dollars and you say, "Uh-oh, I got the day off." You have a limited nuclear war
Art Buchwald Which is insane. Now, how can someone satirize nuke -- limited nuclear war? If you showed "Dr. Strangelove" today on television or in the movies, people wouldn't laugh anymore because they know those people are there.
Studs Terkel As you're saying that, there was a replay that many Chicagoans saw recently of "Network", Paddy Chayefsky's "Network", and there is Peter Finch, and he's as nutty as a fruitcake, you know what I mean? And I couldn't help but think the resemblance he bore physically and yet in some psychic way to our Secretary of State.
Art Buchwald Yeah, and the thing is that most of the people now that are saying things in Washington, you have a Justice Department that is against justice. They're on the other side of every issue. They're supposed to protect the Constitution and protect the Supreme Court, but they go on the other side as a friend of the court and the people who are trying to wreck everything the Supreme Court has ruled on. So you have a, you have a Environmental Protection Agency that's trying to destroy the environment. You have a Secretary of the Interior that's drilling oil wells. All these people should be locked up. I mean, I don't think they should be walking around, and yet they're the ones who are running the country now. Well, here you have a situation where they're asking me as a humorist to be funny about it. Well, I can't be funny about it. I can just write it. It's funny when people read it, but people are really wondering what's going on, and they accept what I write as fact now, so I don't know if I'm funny or not anymore.
Studs Terkel Wait a minute. Let's stick with that, and then we'll demonstrate with some of the columns that appear in the book, "Laid Back in Washington", how you -- now, you say something just now, you said they accept what you write as though you were a serious columnist. As though you were offering news.
Art Buchwald Yeah, if I'm talking about limited nuclear war, and I discussed nuclear war because it's being discussed far too much now. I don't like them discussing it, because when they discuss it, then it becomes a reality. But I suggested that Hiroshima is too late, and we don't know about Hiroshima anymore because it's another generation. So we have to demonstrate once again what the nuclear weapons can do to people. So I suggested that the Soviets send one of theirs and knock out San Francisco, because, and just show them what theirs can do, and we'd send one over and knock out Leningrad. Leningrad's a very pretty city, you know it's like San Francisco, and just -- and then the rest of the world could look at them. Goodbye, San Francisco, goodbye Leningrad, I'm sorry for the people who live there, but if we can make the illustration that those two places, what nuclear weapons can do, maybe they'll stop all this stuff.
Art Buchwald We keep saying it all the time, Studs. I have had occasions where State Department -- I have written a thing out of whole cloth, and they've had meetings at the State Department the next day saying, "Who leaked to Buchwald?"
Art Buchwald Okay.
Art Buchwald "David!"
Studs Terkel "David, you have to understand something about cherry trees. Some cherry trees give off beautiful blossoms but don't bear any fruit. Now, if you chop them down, you lose nothing. But there are other trees that produce cherries, and we need them, we won't have anything to eat."
Art Buchwald "I don't have time to figure out which are the good cherry trees and which are the bad ones. Uncle Ronnie says he promised to cut down all the cherry trees in Washington except for those around the Pentagon. He said under no conditions could I touch them. Well, back to work!"
Studs Terkel "Do you realize that every tree in Washington is a favorite of somebody's? They don't mind you cutting down the other fellow's cherry tree, but they're going to get awfully mad when they find out you're going to knock down theirs."
Art Buchwald "Uncle Ronnie knows that, and he's willing to back me up if anyone gets mad when I cut his tree. He said we can't afford all those trees, and the only way he can get our yard in order is to knock down as many as we can, even if it means people are going to have to go without cherries."
Art Buchwald And the problem with that article, Studs, is that not enough people have read it, and they have to read the article itself. I hope "Atlantic Monthly" releases it to the papers, because what Stockman is saying in effect is what happens to government. He wanted to chop everything, and maybe it should have been chopped, but what happened is the special interests got involved and Reagan started dealing, and Stockman in "The Atlantic Monthly" article said as soon as Reagan started dealing, it was all over. Their supply side economics was all over, because the boll weevils had to be given something, the oil people had to be given something, everybody had to be given something. And all of a sudden what they're trying to balance the budget under the supply-side economics which I don't understand, it turns out that we're going to have a bigger deficit now than we ever are before, and Wall Street was the ones who got first wind of this, they started, I don't know, they must have calculators there, but they started adding up the figures and they didn't add up right.
Art Buchwald Of course, because they want a balanced budget. Now, you've got a choice of a balanced budget and a very bad economy apparently, and people are out of work and a lot of suffering and then everybody talks about the pain threshold. How much pain can the American people stand? And this is where we're at now, how much pain will it take and will it work, and Stockman in his article indicated it wouldn't work, and it came at a very bad time for Reagan because he's still trying to get 16 billion dollars more out of Congress.
Art Buchwald Right.
Studs Terkel AWAC.
Art Buchwald Okay. We gave the AWACS to the Saudis. Why did we give the AWACS to the Saudis? Because we sent over two AWACS to protect them during the Iranian war. I guess it was Iranian-Iraq war, and suddenly the Saudis saw the AWACS, they said, "Hey, those are nice. What are they?" And they said, "That's the highest stuff we've got. That's the Cadillac of military equipment." And the Saudis have got money coming out of their ears, said, "Oh, we'll buy them." So the [son's a stupe?], said, "Yeah, you can have them." Now the AWACS are very, very sophisticated weapons. And I can tell you this because someone told it to me in the Pentagon. They can only fly them about 30 hours before the computers break down, they're that sophisticated. So the Saudis are going to be able to fly them for two hours, and then they're going to break down. Then the Saudis are going to get mad at us because they're gonna say we sold them damaged goods. So all they can show on those AWACS are "I Love Lucy" reruns. So the Saudis, that's the kind of madness, I see it there. I say, "Wait a minute. That thing isn't that good, but it's become a point of honor now that we sell it to them. By the time they get them, by the time they train the people, they'll be obsolete.
Art Buchwald -- The Moral Majority says that God talks to everybody, you know, and talks to them all the time and tells them they should vote for Reagan and they should do this and they should have school prayers and they should do that. And I talk to God maybe two, three times
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Art Buchwald "With all due respect to these people, they don't know what the devil they're talking about. I've told them time and time again I don't give political endorsements. If I did, I wouldn't be God. I have a good mind to sue them for using my name without my permission." "'I
Art Buchwald "'What scares me,' God said, 'is that these TV ministers are not only telling the American people whom I support, but they're raising all their money in my name. They keep warning the viewing audience that if they don't send in their checks, I'm going to be very upset. I don't deal in money. Never have and never will, but they're telling these poor souls out there that if they don't come up with a contribution, they won't have any salvation. I'd appreciate it if you put out the word that anyone is free to send in any amount of money to a TV minister, but the money isn't buying them a place in heaven. It's buying them limousines and private airplanes and five hundred dollar suits for the people who are making the pitches."
Art Buchwald "I can't do it. I believe in separation of church and state. I've stayed out of American politics since 1776, and that's why you people are still around. I'm sorry, I have to go now. I have the Moral Majority on hold." Well, anyhow.
Art Buchwald Well, there you have another situation where you have people in this country who are the fundamentalists and they think that they can tell the rest of the country what's good for them, and if they don't do what's good for them, then God is going to get them.
Art Buchwald Yeah.
Studs Terkel From
Art Buchwald Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Art Buchwald Everybody in this country has a computer now, and they all got their names on it. And when your name is on a computer, you get a, you get a letter from the Moral Majority and they send you a lot of tracts and stuff and they tell you you better get with it, and it's -- I think their lifespan is about one year and then we'll go on to something else. You get very bored in this country fast, and that's why this country is saved all the time, our attention span is down to 20 minutes.
Studs Terkel Whether that's, maybe it saved the country, but also can kill it too, because there's no sense of past. You notice that in your, in your right observations, there is a forgetfulness. There's no sense of what happened before, we start again.
Art Buchwald Yeah, that's right, because we're talking about nuclear war, and we're talking about even Allan, here's a man who has seen Watergate, here's the White House who's seen Watergate, and yet they keep fighting, you know, and making up different stories to protect the guy, and the guy should have been canned as soon as it came out, and so should this Stockman, because you can't live with that. And it makes things worse, but nobody learns from the past.
Art Buchwald Okay.
Art Buchwald Okay.
Art Buchwald Okay. Well, you see, that was the time that Ronald Reagan said that trees caused more pollution than automobiles. And the Reagan forces are trying to figure out how to stop Ronnie from saying that, so they're briefing Ronnie in a hotel room. "Ronnie" -- one of the aides rushes in and says "Ronnie just announced the battle for clean air is over and attacked a volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens."
Art Buchwald "Ronnie, where are you?" You think, you think you're over Los Angeles. Aren't you sure? You can't see because it's all brown smog down there? Ronnie, why did you get into the clean air thing without checking without us first? I know it sounded like a good idea comparing Mount St. Helens with pollution, but Ronnie, you got it all wrong. Cars pollute with nitric oxide, carbon monoxide and other gases. Mount St. Helens' sulfur is peanuts compared to manmade pollutants. I know you're not a scientist, Ronnie, but people want their president to have the facts before he speaks. Can you see the airport yet? You can't see anything but dirty clouds? Los Angeles isn't going to like that, what you said about the battle for clean air being won." Well,
Studs Terkel Well since we're on the air, since we're on the subject of air, you have one called "Breathe Deeply, Please" on page 98, and this is the subject to all of us, not only not only read about but feel, and breathe. Okay, on 98, this came about -- oh, this dealt with the EPA, environmental protection, how'd you -- do you remember how you come about to write a certain column?
Art Buchwald Well, I probably saw a story on it in the paper, and it -- oh, the Environmental Protection Agency relaxed the nation's smog standards last month by 50%, because it believes the average American can breathe twice as much smog as it was previously thought without falling down on the sidewalk. As soon as the news was announced, I went over to see a friend at EPA called Harvinger.
Art Buchwald "Instead of demanding a standard of point zero eight per million, we will now allow point one two. I know it doesn't sound like much on paper, but it really has a lot of significance for the little guy who produces automobiles and burns coal to produce electricity."
Studs Terkel "I wasn't talking about autos and industry. I was talking about people. See, if you up the permissible amount of pollution, aren't you endangering the lungs and life of the average person?"
Art Buchwald "EPA can do just so much to keep a person alive. When we set certain antipollution standards, we expect Americans to live up to that. If they're going to get sick even after we have announced that these standards are perfectly safe, it's their fault, not ours. We publicize these figures as much as possible, and people should keep up with any changes we make in them."
Studs Terkel "Well, if I tell you on the basis of medical science, or scientific evidence, that you can breathe twice as much smog as originally thought" -- oh, that's you talking. "It's up to you to get the word."
Studs Terkel When and it still go -- oh, I say. You're right. I say. "But there are some people who say you're lowering the pollution standards at the behest of the auto industry and other large urban polluters who'll have to spend billions of dollars to meet the guidelines set by the EPA."
Art Buchwald "Let the environmentalists say it. There's always someone who can't get enough clean air, but they're not the ones who ask how much does smog-free air costs. Everyone has to make tradeoffs in this world. Before you throw your weight behind the clean air enthusiast, I would like to ask you a question. Would you rather spend 500 dollars extra for a new car, or live a few more lousy years?"
Art Buchwald "Yup."
Art Buchwald "Isn't there always? Every time we decide what's good for the American people, someone is going to contest us. Our job is not to prevent the air from being poisoned, but to make sure that the public can live with the poison in the air."
Art Buchwald "The last thing to remember is that American people can take a lot more pollution than they think they can. If in the next few years you start to cough, wheeze or get headaches, I think you owe it to yourself to ask, 'Am I really sick, or is it the government?'"
Studs Terkel And so it comes out as a funny column. This is, this is the, see we live -- talk about a nutty period, nutty moment. It's a funny column, it's a humorous column by a witty guy, Art Buchwald. At the same time, this is what we're getting.
Art Buchwald Yeah, there's a discontent in the air. It's an economic discontent. Businessmen are unhappy. The people who voted for Reagan are unhappy. The labor force is unhappy. And they are nervous and they don't know what's going on. Now when you have good times, then you can start all this Moral Majority stuff about school prayers and ERA and, they're all red herrings compared to what's really happening in this world. And there are two things that you have to worry about with anybody who is leading your country, you have to keep us out of war, that's the primary thing, and a second thing is to keep the people from getting hurt. And this is where they're nervous now, because these are the two areas that they're not sure that Reagan and his people can do it, and they keep saying "Give them a chance, give him a chance." Well, I'm willing to give him a chance and frankly, Studs, I'm rooting for Reagan, because if Reagan doesn't succeed we're all in trouble. You and I are in trouble if Reagan didn't succeed, so we have a vested interest in having him succeed, enough apologizing for questioning him. But I don't think it's going to come out that way.
Studs Terkel "Laid Back in Washington" is the collection of the recent columns, observations of Art Buchwald that Putnam has pub-- but it's very -- as you can gather, it's very funny out loud reading, too, sometimes terrifyingly so, but funny nonetheless. [pause in recording] We haven't talked about the price of bananas, or strawberries in this case, the high cost of living.
Art Buchwald I want to make a point that I don't just write political stuff, a lot of the stuff that gets the most reaction is nonpolitical. This one had to do with the price of fruit, and I went into a fruit market, and -- oh, oh, it started off because I read a story that a lady in Virginia was arrested and found guilty of eating two strawberries in a supermarket. It was a national story, and many people thought the arrest was outrageous. That is because they didn't know what the stores are getting for strawberries this summer. The price of fruit is out of sight, and I went with my wife to a market to buy an anniversary present, and we went to the fruit and vegetable market, but first we had to ring the bell before the guard opened the steel door. Then I said, "We're interested in fruit," and we were ushered into a carpeted room where Mr. [Neem?] himself came out, sat behind his Louis XIV desk, and we were asked to be seated across from him.
Studs Terkel [Finger snap]. "He snapped his fingers, and another tray. 'These are pears shaped like diamonds. Note the lustre of the skin when I hold it up to the light. Elizabeth Taylor had one of these for breakfast when her husband John Warner was running in the primary.'"
Studs Terkel [Finger snap] Snapped his fingers, and the assistant took away the tray and brought a tray of peaches, each sitting on its own piece of cotton. "Well, one of these would go lovely with your wife's complexion. There are only 11 on this tray. Sophia Loren bought one when she was in town a few weeks ago. When these are gone, there won't be anymore. As you can see, our designer has made it possible to either eat one as is, or cut up into small pieces and add sweet cream."
Art Buchwald "They were still green, but Mr. Neem explained the green ones had more value, because in time they would turn yellow. My wife picked one up, and I knew from the way she held it that this is what she wanted. 'What the heck,' I thought. 'A 25th anniversary only comes once in a lifetime. I wrote out the check and put the banana in a lined box. Mr. Neem locked the safe and then escorted us to the door."
Art Buchwald Yeah, you write about kids, you write about students coming home on vacation, and their families never know if they've had a good time or not, so I wrote a column taking a leaf out of Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn where they leave you a thing to fill out, and I suggested parents send it to their kids when they go back from vacation and they say, "Did you have a good time? Were we quiet enough in the morning? Was there transportation available when you wanted it?" And this one are very big with parents with college kids, because they all identified with that, and you find the ones that had the most reaction are the ones where people can identify with them, and those are what we're dealing with everyday life things, insurance, computers, bills, things that -- life's a struggle, and if you can make fun of it, people love it.
Art Buchwald Buying
Studs Terkel "There's going to be a big shortage of American automobiles in the next three years. We're only going to be able to take care of our regular customers, and they're going to have to take whatever we give them."
Art Buchwald Well, there you see it. I mean, this -- there's truth to that too, Studs, because if you make it hard for somebody to buy something, they'll want it very badly. But if you make it easy, if Lee Iacocca goes on the air and begs you to buy a car, you're not going to buy a car from him. But if Lee Iacocca goes on the air and says, "No one in this country gets a Chrysler," you'll find people rushing out to [unintelligible] buy
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of Buchwald's territory, his turf, which you see is pretty wide one. And since you worry about war and everything else, as who doesn't who is sane, that is, the idea of living through nuclear war, SALT. You have something called "SALT Centuries Ago," thousands of years ago, SALT B.C. What was it like?
Art Buchwald This was a column about the fact that I wrote about the first SALT treaty, which was in 750 B.C., and it was reported by the prophet Isaiah, and it took place between King Hezekiah of Judea and King Sennacherib of Assyria. And the original draft of the agreement read, "All swords will be beaten into plowshares and all spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither side will learn war anymore." And the wording of the treaty reached Hezekiah and with immediate outcry from his hawk advisers. "We can't give up our swords. How do we know the Assyrians will not turn their plowshares back into weapons as soon as the treaty is signed?"
Art Buchwald The third adviser to the King said, "I can't support a SALT B.C. treaty of this kind. If we turn all our swords into plowshares, the Assyrians will have twice as many land-based plowshares as we have. Each plowshare could be mounted with ten pruning hooks and be turned into offensive weapons which would bury every man, woman and child in Judea."
Studs Terkel "King Hezekiah was impressed with the arguments. He knew there wasn't a chance in Gomorrah of getting the treaty approved by his people unless there were guarantees that their sword and spear arsenal would remain intact. And so he sent to Sennacherib in Damascus that he wanted a limitation of a number of offensive swords each side could have. He demanded the dismantling of defensive shields that the Assyrians had developed to deflect Judean steel." You pick it up.
Art Buchwald "Sennacherib, who had stockpiled thousands of swords and shields and had developed a new SS-18 spear which could be launched from a ditch, met with his advisers and worked out a strategy. 'We'll tell Hezekiah,' he said, 'that as part of detente, each side will be able to double the number of swords and spears in their arsenals, and both parties will be permitted to develop one more weapon of its own choosing. Even with this, we'll have superiority over them.'"
Art Buchwald "We'll insist that this time that plowshares not be included in the arms limitation agreement. As you know, our new backfire plowshares will be ready in six months. It will be an answer to their Minutemen pruning hook. Hezekiah received the Assyrian proposals which he knew would be rejected by the hard liners in his court. 'What about verification?" one of them said. 'How do we know the Assyrians will not put six blades on one sword and [unintelligible]? What would prevent them from turning their pruning hooks back into MERV lances?'" Go ahead.
Studs Terkel "I will authorize the building of an MX system costing 30 billion sheep. This will enable us to hide our mobile spear carriers underground, so the Assyrians will never know where they are. It will be the ultimate deterrent to prevent a surprise attack."
Art Buchwald Well, that's another way of saying it, too, how these SALT treaties get so screwed up because both sides don't want to give up anything, and even if they did, they have advisers on both sides telling them that if you do, we'll be weakened.
Studs Terkel What is more goofy than that situation? See, we got the two big boys now, each one -- we know, scientists tell us each one can knock the other side off 50 times over. Now, what's the 51st time for?
Art Buchwald Well, what's even worse than that, Studs, is not that the two big guys have them, but the two big guys are helping other people get them. And there comes a time in life when enough of these little guys have their own, and you get a Gadaffi, you get a couple of nutty people in different parts of the world, and then the big guys have no control anymore and then they're wondering why they helped the little guys build their own bomb.
Art Buchwald Well, those things are, I think the MX system as it was outlined by the Air Force was the Maginot line, and they insisted they need it. And anything you build underground that's permanent is a Maginot line, and the French found out, they kept saying, "Well, the Maginot line is going to save us." And they really blew it. So this is what the MX system is all about. Now you have us building B-1 bombers. The life of the B-1 bomber they tell us by the time it's built will be four years. That's 35 billion dollars. And the arms race is really getting out of hand, and none of us can afford it anymore. And at some point in time we're going to have to go back to SWAP, because there's no other answer.
Art Buchwald Yeah.
Art Buchwald Right.
Art Buchwald In case you don't keep up with these things, the latest Pentagon toy is the MX, which is a series of underground tunnels. Nobody wants to fool the Soviets more than I do, but at the moment I think it's just a shell game, and I don't think we should pay that kind of money to build an underground train system, so my solution to the problem is to give the contract to Amtrak, because they don't know where their trains are at any time anyhow, and all we do is give the Soviets a train schedule, and they never find a Nike missile again.
Studs Terkel By the way, in Art Buchwald's columns as he points out, that he goes in many directions where wherever the whimsy hits him or the truth hits him, and so a lot of these don't deal with the political issue or a national issue, but with the personal ones, too, and throughout you have this as well as human rights and the hydrogen lobby and "Help, Help, Police," oh, they're dangerous to the First Amendment, of course, that too, and journalism of course, dangers there.
Art Buchwald "Laid Back in Washington", and people criticize me for the title because they, they, they think it mean something else. I mean it to be "laid back" and they think it means to be "Laaaaaiiid Back."
Art Buchwald [See
Studs Terkel Putnam are the publishers. Oh, another thing we haven't, you mentioned pollution but we haven't talked about the "Help, Police, Help," about who is a criminal. I mean, who gets sent up for doing what, you know. And this deals with -- well, but suppose, this is worth reading because it's dialogue.
Art Buchwald One
Art Buchwald Let's
Studs Terkel "I'm certain. I had my water and food analyzed by a laboratory and they were full of pesticides. Someone dumped the poison in our wells and rivers, and not only my loved ones, but all our neighbors may be croaking at this moment."
Art Buchwald "Wait a minute. The Frankenstein Chemical Company is a multimillion dollar corporation with plants all over the United States. I know the men running the one in this county. They're lodge brothers of mine. Are you accusing them of poisoning
Studs Terkel "I know it sounds hard to believe, Sergeant, but I have this niece who works in the company's office, and she has memos signed by two of the officers instructing the Frankenstein employees to dump all the waste in the river at night. The memos say if anyone questions them about it, deny they did it, because if they get caught, Frankenstein'll have to close down the plant and they'll all be out of jobs."
Studs Terkel "Well, let me tell you something, Sergeant. If someone came into your house and started sprinkling arsenic on your food and fed your dog DDT and poured cyanide in your children's milk, would you arrest them?"
Studs Terkel "Why?"
Art Buchwald No, they go back three years, 'cause I didn't do one last year. Last year you talked to me and my wife I think about her book. She wrote a book about a memoir. And this, so I waited three years to put this one out. So it's a, it's, because it deals with Reagan, deals with things going on in America. And it's, I wish I had time to put what was going on now in there, because it's really going fast.
Art Buchwald Yeah. I think so. I think that as the economy gets worse, there's going to be, they're going to look for somebody to blame. Reagan's blaming Congress, Congress is blaming Reagan, and that's the way Americans are. They always blame the other guy.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but coming back to the original question when this program began close to an hour ago, I say isn't it more difficult as the world gets, as the situation gets loonier and loonier, for a columnist to be satirical?
Studs Terkel And the book is, as a prelude to that, the book is "Laid Back in Washington", the columns of Art Buchwald, Putnam the publishers and to repeat, it's great out loud reading as well as reading it softly to yourself.