The Washington Post's renowned satirical columnist Art Buchwald passed away in January. He was 81. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he regularly took humorous jabs at politicians and assorted other targets, including the insurance business.
He was a hero of mine because he was funny, incisive and a fine writer. As we all would have it, Art slipped away under his own steam, with dignity, having declined to live out his remaining days with the onus of life support for the kidney ailment which eventually did him in.
He opted instead to turn the Washington hospice where he spent many of his final days (he actually died in his home in Martha's Vineyard) into a sort of salon where he entertained friends and relatives and celebrated his life, rather then mourned it, presumably smoking those big cigars he enjoyed so much and hopefully quaffing adult beverages.
Like I said, the insurance business and its practitioners were always an easy target for Art Buchwald's barbed wit. Reading the accounts of his demise recalled to me an incident from 30 years or so ago when Buchwald took after the insurance business in a column for one offense or another which bothered and amused him. I don't recall the particulars. They're lost in the dim light of history and the even dimmer corners of my own brain, and stored, irretrievably I suppose, in some dark and musty archive.
Anyhow, some misguided bright light at one of the insurance industry's major think tanks thought it would be a swell idea to engage Art Buchwald in a battle of words and proceeded to do so publicly. Apparently he or they thought they were equal to the task, which turned out to be a very wrong calculation. The fellow assigned the task crafted an earnest and humorless point-by-point rebuke of the column and fired it off to Buchwald. Art responded, quickly, sparely, witheringly, dismissively, and hysterically, "I feel so bad." Which, let's face it, is how most people feel about the insurance business. Unfortunately, they took on a master writer (don't do that) and gave him yet another opportunity to drive the point home. Better that they left it alone, don't you think?
[It was a bad month for me. Along with the news of Art Buchwald's death came the news that the idol of my youth, the Yankees all-star right fielder and World Series hero Hank Bauer had passed away in Kansas of cancer at the age of 84. But that's another story.]
Recollecting the Buchwald anecdote tickled my brain even further into the dim, dark past. My mentor, the late great insurance editor John Cosgrove long ago told me this somewhat related story. It took place when Abraham Ribicoff, who went on to become secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President John F. Kennedy and then a U.S. senator from Connecticut, was Governor of Connecticut. There's a slim tie here to the insurance business in that he had a young aide back then by the name of Roger Dove who was later a senior communications official with one of the big Hartford insurance companies.
One morning Dove was briefing the governor on the events of the day and presented him with an editorial or letter criticizing Abe's policy on this or that. He asked the governor if he should frame a sharp response. Abe perused the document handed to him and said, "Let's just slip this into the bottom drawer here and see what happens," meaning the bottom drawer of his own desk, which is where he placed it. Guess what? Nothing happened.
Often enough it really is wise to let sleeping dogs lie.
TOM SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for 40 years, is managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, of Baldwin, NY.
May 1, 2007
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