Andy Rooney was crusty, cantankerous, curmudgeonly — all words you’re reading in the obituaries for him today.
But he was also courageous — in the manner of the best journalists — as my favorite story about him illustrates.
It’s a story from August 1995, when Andy excoriated, without mercy, the then-owner of CBS, Laurence Tisch, in one of his syndicated newspaper columns. (Rooney’s columns — which were separate from the work he did for CBS — appeared then in more than 150 newspapers.)
Of course, Rooney was then employed by CBS, which was paying him millions for his commentaries on “60 Minutes.” And yet, here came Andy anyway, biting the hand that fed him (and just tearing it off at the proverbial wrist) and literally daring Tisch to fire him.
The impetus for the column was the pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse. So, to mark the occasion, Andy decided he would give the world his own summation of what CBS had become under Tisch’s nine-year reign.
Tisch was a wealthy New York investor who had assumed control of CBS in 1986. He then set about cutting costs, laying off employees and selling off parts of the company such as the publishing and music divisions. By 1995, he sought to cash in on his investment with a sale to Westinghouse. The deal was in the works, but not completed, at the time Rooney wrote this column in August — which meant that Tisch was still firmly in charge of CBS and could have fired Rooney at any time.
And few would have blamed him either because Rooney went after him with a vengeance, blasting the boss for everything that was wrong with CBS — from the low ratings of its prime-time shows to the worn carpeting Rooney observed in the company’s landmark headquarters building in New York, known as Black Rock.
The carpet portion of the column is my favorite passage: “[CBS staffers],” Rooney wrote, “began to notice the carpets in the hallways were dirty. Spots where people had spilled coffee with milk and sugar were left uncleaned . . . The deterioration in maintenance standards was all the more noticeable because for years . . . it was one of the most handsome office buildings in the world. Under Larry Tisch, Black Rock acquired many of the characteristics of a slum housing project.”
“He could fire me,” Rooney wrote of Tisch, “but I’m part of what he’s selling [to Westinghouse] and money means too much for him to do that.”
As it happened, Tisch personally made an estimated $2 billion on the Westinghouse deal (according to Wikipedia). He died in 2003.
The column Rooney published that summer weekend was so personal that he even included Tisch’s wife, Billie, in his “critique” of the family’s stewardship of CBS. And yet, Andy said at the time that he never heard from any Tisches after the column ran.
“I don’t think they care very much,” he told me when I rang him up at CBS. And that was another thing I loved about Andy — you could get him on the phone just by calling the CBS switchboard and asking for him, and he would pick up his own phone. That’s how “old-school” this guy was.
He was a real piece of work — the genuine article. And though he was 92 and had lived a very full life, we’re still sorry to see him go.