Andy Rooney, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who turned “curmudgeon” into a job title, spoke at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy last night.
Rooney’s interaction with the crowd showed that the often controversial humorist and commentator managed to charm his audience.
The speech, entitled “60 Minutes with Andy Rooney,” took the form of an extended question and answer session. Rooney devoted less than 15 minutes to a short speech, in which he praised the value of education, lamented the current state of U.S. schools in the United States and urged Fletcher students to help fix the America’s problems.
Rooney then asked the mix of Fletcher students, undergrads, and professors sitting and standing inside the packed ASEAN Auditorium to question him. “I like questions,” he said.
Second year Fletcher student Jeremy Harrington asked Rooney to “skewer people outside our borders,” to which Rooney deadpanned, “There’s bound to be a conservative in every crowd.”
Rooney responded by referring to the American failure to win the support of Iraqis and the world community in the Iraq war. He said the United States started the war “for good reasons,” but he did not think the rest of the world agreed.
“We are in such a leadership position and I just don’t feel we are leading as well as we could,” he said. “We should try and sell ourselves, and try to convince the Iraqi people – with something other than guns – that we are here to help.”
Rooney said he thought Iraq was “an ignorant society, not to be critical of them,” a remark which was questioned later in his speech. Rooney defended the comment, saying that it is difficult to sell democracy in a country where few have access to the media and illiteracy is high, but acknowledged that “my attitude of the Iraqis is typical of the America I am complaining about.”
Rooney also attributed voters’ reliance on religion in the recent election to ignorance. “I am an atheist,” Rooney said. “I don’t understand religion at all. I’m sure I’ll offend a lot of people by saying this, but I think it’s all nonsense.”
He said Christian fundamentalism is a result of “a lack of education. They haven’t been exposed to what the world has to offer.”
Rooney said he also could not understand how “men who work with their hands voted for George Bush,” and again attributing the phenomenon to a lack of education. “The labor force is conservative,” he said. “How in the world did that happen?”
Rooney said that he hoped Bush’s re-election would give him the “confidence” to end the war in Iraq. “I think if George Bush said tomorrow, ‘I was wrong, I ask for an apology,’ I bet the American people would thank him, and they would like him,” he said.
Many of the questions directed to Rooney were about journalism, a profession that Rooney said he loves so much that he “can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
Rooney’s own show, “60 Minutes,” was involved in a public and politically charged flap when it unwittingly used false documents in a Dan Rather piece on Bush’s National Guard service.
“I am very critical of some of the people at CBS who make it apparent what their political leanings are,” Rooney said. “That’s what happened to this thing of Dan Rather’s that got out. There’s no question they wanted to run it because it was negative towards Bush.”
The veteran reporter said the news business “has been taken over” by ‘the moneychangers.'”
“I feel bad about the news business,” Rooney said. “It has the prospects of being stronger than ever. There are good young people in the news business,” he said, praising his fellow commentators Jon Stewart and Al Franken
Rooney said he enjoys watching television news, “partially because I have a drink of bourbon with it.”
He said the media would be improved if money was donated for network newscasts so that they could run “an hour every night with real news and no commercials,” he said. “I’d like to see free news.”
Some of Rooney’s answers seemed quaint and anachronistic. In an age where The New York Times ran an apology for not being aggressive enough in their reporting leading up to the Iraq war, Rooney said he thought the media was hard enough on politicians. When a student disagreed, he told her she didn’t “have a leg to stand on.”
Sophomore Spencer Hickok questioned Rooney’s inclusion of Columbus’ discovery of America in his list of the greatest moments in American history when, in Hickok’s words, it resulted in the “genocide of Native Americans.”
“I’m not hearing you,” Rooney began. He appeared caught off guard, and then conceded, “I can’t answer your question.”
When the Fletcher School presented Rooney with a copy of their journal on international relations as a gift, Rooney quipped, “I have this! I read this the other night!”
Rooney’s wit extended beyond jokes at the expense of his audience. He recalled the time he urged former CBS president Mel Karmazin to watch the news more often, to which Karmazin replied, “If I did that, I probably would’ve fired you a year ago.”