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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2007

Laughing at life, death

ART Buchwald died making people laugh, which is also the way he lived. That it took one of this nation's most famous humorists a year to shuffle off his mortal coil only accentuated the light-hearted tone of his worldly exit last week at age 81.

A veteran newspaper columnist whose work at one point appeared in 550 papers, including The Blade, Mr. Buchwald knew the value of not being upstaged. His last words to friends before he succumbed to kidney failure reportedly were, "I just don't want to die the same day Castro dies."

He also recorded a video obituary for the Web site of the New York Times that began with his trademark grin and a declaration complete with a raspy, New York-accent: "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald and I just died."

Among his best work were the columns in which he poked sharp but usually gentle fun at celebrities and personalities, especially self-important Washington politicians. One godsend to his career was Richard Nixon, of whom he said, "I worship the quicksand on which he walks."

In 1982, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

It was no accident that Mr. Buchwald had more fun dying than anyone we can recall. One of the 30 books he wrote was Too Soon To Say Goodbye, published in November, which chronicled his refusal of kidney dialysis, the loss of a leg to diabetes, and the five months he spent in a hospice, during which, to his surprise and that of his doctors, he did not die.

Instead, he decamped to his summer home on Martha's Vineyard, where he continued holding court in a series of affectionate farewells from a host of friends and luminaries from around the world.

"Dying isn't hard," he said at one point. "Getting paid by Medicare is."

Behind the droll and self-deprecating wit, and the owlish, black-rimmed glasses, was a family broken by the mental illness of his mother, a childhood stay in an orphanage, and a lifetime of chronic, sometimes manic, depression.

Without doubt, his humor was a defense against the devastating disease. He learned early, he said, that making people laugh was a way to "get all the love you want."

In the end, Art Buchwald's most important contribution to American life may well be the attention he focused on overcoming depression and talking openly about death and dying.

Not a bad way to go.

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