Andy Rooney’s Thoughts on Charity from 1983

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November 5, 2011; Source: Mother Nature Network | Even for those of us who don’t watch much network TV, Andy Rooney was a gift to television journalism. Do realize, however, that he started in print journalism, including being an “embedded” reporter (without that term) during World War II, and writing for Stars and Stripes. So he could write just as expertly as he could offer curmudgeonly television commentary. Sometimes his commentary provoked anger, including from those who assumed they would like what he says. He was notoriously cranky about charity, for example, and claimed to be no fan of giving things away. A culture writer at Mother Nature Network found a 1983 article Rooney wrote on charity that reflects both Rooney’s charmingly cantankerous persona and some hard-to-acknowledge truisms.

In “Charity Is Never Easy”, published in 1983, Rooney acknowledged pangs of guilt for “drop(ping) some letter asking for a contribution into the little wicker wastebasket.” The reason, he said, is because “there are so many people and organizations that need and deserve help that it’s more than I can stand to think about sometimes”—and this from a guy who professionally found things to think about and write about that many of us would have let pass without commentary (remember Joe Piscopo’s famous “Did you ever wonder why” impersonations of Rooney, using a line that Rooney never actually used himself).

“One of the difficult things about charity is deciding whom to give to,” he wrote. “You can’t give to everyone who asks and sometimes those who don’t ask need help worse than those who do. I don’t give to the person with the dog on the sidewalk outside of Saks Fifth Avenue because I’m not sure what’s wrong with him.” For Rooney, giving to and through the United Way was a “partial answer,” though he acknowledged being “embarrassed to see how little I’ve given compared to how much I have.”

Although he offered a few of the typical excuses people use not to give—“We say to ourselves that we’re suspicious of how this charity spends its money, or we don’t like the new policy of this school or that organization”—he ended his essay with a very uncomfortable line: “Charity is never easy. So many of the people who need it don’t seem to deserve it and that provides a wonderful excuse for all of us not to give much.”

It is characteristic commentary for a professional iconoclast who quit CBS for a time because it vetoed his critical essay on the Vietnam War (he read it on PBS instead, garnering a Writer’s Guild award) and came out early and consistently against the invasion of Iraq. It’s no surprise to us that he would raise questions about charitable giving.

We encounter opinionated people all the time who think that the world is hungering for the next installment of their musings but who lack the slightest familiarity with a pertinent fact or two—much less a thought or insight of real value. Somehow, by virtue of the accident of their position or power, they think, as Barry Switzer has said, that they were “born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” Andy Rooney was idiosyncratic, argumentative, and sometimes ornery, but his grouchy commentaries were worth listening to. That we will never hear another from Rooney reminds us of the dwindling quality of public discourse in American journalism.—Rick Cohen