Columnist Art Buchwald Dies At 81

Newspaper columnist Art Buchwald, who chronicled the life and times of Washington with an infectious wit for more than four decades and endeared himself to many with his never-say-die battle with failing kidneys, is dead at 81.

Buchwald's son, Joel, who was with his father, disclosed the satirist's death, saying he had passed away quietly at his home late Wednesday with his family.

Buchwald had refused dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys last year and was expected to die within weeks of moving to a hospice on Feb. 7. But he lived to return home and even write a book about his experiences.

"The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it," Joel Buchwald said. "He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms."

Neither Buchwald nor his doctors could explain how he survived in such grave condition, and he didn't seem to mind.

The unexpected lease on life gave Buchwald time for an extended and extraordinarily public goodbye, as he held court daily in a hospice salon with a procession of family, friends and acquaintances.

"I loved every minute of it," he told CBS News correspondent Rita Braver in an interview in December.

"If I had my dialysis, no one would have known I was sick. Or I had a kidney problem, and nobody would come visit me. Since I didn't take dialysis, everybody wanted to come and see me. And it was one of those things where 'You gotta see Artie." So pretty soon people in television and newspapers and on the radio all said, 'Hey, Buchwald's dying in a hospice. Go over there. It could be a good story.'"

Often called "The Wit of Washington" during his years here, Buchwald's name became synonymous with political satire. He was well known, too, for his wide smile and affinity for cigars.

CBS News' Mike Wallace, a close friend for 50 years, said Buchwald "wanted to make people laugh, he wanted to make people think. He was kind, he was gentle, he was funny. They don't come more interesting or better than Art Buchwald."

Buchwald's humor grew out of a childhood spent partly in foster homes, CBS News correspondent Bill Plante reports. He was so unhappy, he ran away and joined the Marines at 16.

Buchwald built his career in Paris, where he wrote his first column in the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune in 1949. He returned to the United States in 1962 and began a long second career spoofing the Washington elite in his syndicated column. He won the Pulitzer Prize, U.S. journalism's top prize, for commentary in 1982.

Among his more famous witticisms: "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

Buchwald said in numerous interviews that after it became public that he was not afraid to die, he was not depressed about his fate and that he was, in fact, having the time of his life.

"It's nice because I can sit here and actually joke and reminisce ... and so it's fun," he said. "The thing is snowballing and rather than just pretend I don't care, I do care. It's a great way to say goodbye."

Naturally, he found the humor in that choice and wrote about it in some final columns.

"I am known in the hospice as The Man Who Wouldn't Die," Buchwald wrote in March. "How long they allow me to stay here is another problem. I don't know where I'd go now, or if people would still want to see me if I wasn't in a hospice.

"But in case you're wondering, I'm having a swell time — the best time of my life."

Last January, doctors had amputated Buchwald's right leg below the knee because of circulation problems. Losing it was "very traumatic" and he said it probably influenced his decision to reject the three-times-a-week, five-hours-a-day dialysis treatments. In 2000, he suffered a major stroke.

His syndicated column at one point appeared in more than 500 newspapers worldwide. It appeared twice a week in publications including The Washington Post and was distributed by Tribune Media Services.

In a 1995 memoir on his early years, "Leaving Home," Buchwald wrote that humor was his "salvation." In all, he wrote more than 30 books.

"People ask what I am really trying to do with humor," he wrote. "The answer is, 'I'm getting even.' ... For me, being funny is the best revenge."

He also was at the center of a landmark battle with Hollywood over the question of who originated the idea for Eddie Murphy's 1988 hit film "Coming to America."

Buchwald first attracted notice in the late 1940s in Paris, where he became a correspondent for Variety after dropping out of college.

A year later, he took a trial column called "Paris After Dark" to the New York Herald Tribune. He filled it with scraps of offbeat information about Paris nightlife.

In 1951, he started another column, "Mostly About People," featuring interviews with celebrities in Paris. The next year, the Herald Tribune introduced Buchwald to U.S. readers through yet another column, "Europe's Lighter Side."

"I'll Always Have Paris!" is the title of a 1996 book. He celebrated his 80th birthday at a party at the French Embassy in Washington.

Among the many who visited Buchwald at the hospice was French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, who brought a medal honoring the 14 years Buchwald spent as a journalist in Paris.

Buchwald returned to the United States in 1962, at the height of the glamour of the Kennedy administration, and set himself up in an office just two blocks from the White House. From there, he began a long career lampooning the Washington power establishment.