Charles Osgood’s Brand of Talk Cured Headaches. It Didn’t Give You One.

David Hinckley
5 min readJan 23, 2024

In an age when too much talk media has become a volley of jackhammers, Charles Osgood was a symphony of fine strings.

Osgood, who died Tuesday at his New Jersey home, age 91, retired as the host of CBS Sunday Morning in 2016 and a year later ended his long-running radio feature The Osgood File. His hallmark on both was gentle civility, and while CBS Sunday Morning remains an oasis under current host Jane Pauley, we are poorer without Charles Osgood.

The young Osgood, before he discovered bow ties were easier.

When the Census Bureau created a category in the 1980s called Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters, who else would have responded with a romantic verse?

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

If you would be my POSSLQ.

Note here, too, that Osgood’s verse wasn’t just witty lines. It touched on something bigger — in this case, the unavoidable sense that sometimes bureaucrats might want to pull back.

In his early days on Sunday Morning, he noted a story in which a man who was caught shoplifting won a $13,000 settlement from the store because the clerks who stopped him broke his arm. Like most readers of that story, Osgood clearly thought “Huh?” and responded thusly:

People used to say that crime does not pay

And at one time that was how it was

But if crime didn’t pay in an earlier day

These days in the courtroom it does

When Osgood was asked about writing verse in general, he would say that his didn’t compare to Milton or Robert Frost, but then sometimes note they were not working on deadline.

“When you are due on the air in 30 minutes,” he said a few years ago, “you sometimes have to take what the muse lays on you.”

He had a good muse, and several of his poems, the ones he didn’t have to finish in 30 minutes, have become popular classics.

“Pretty Good,” which like most of his verse he wrote for The Osgood File, starts with a man who was told from an early age that he only need aspire to be “pretty good,” that is, if he added five plus five and got nine, that was a “pretty good” answer. Good enough.

At the end Osgood got to his real point:

There once was a pretty good nation
Pretty proud of the greatness it had,
Which learned much too late,
If you want to be great,
Pretty good is, in fact, pretty bad.

Perhaps his most circulated poem was “Responsibility,” about jobs that need to be done except no one steps up to do them.

When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that Somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame
.

Yes, Osgood could be a bit of a scold, a natural enough response for a journalist who was always looking around and wasn’t always impressed. But both in his prose and his poetry, he did his scolding so eloquently, with such witty bemusement, that it was impossible to resent him or even, in many cases, immediately realize there was a scold at all.

Nor, charming as he and his work were, did Charles Osgood ever come off as a novelty act, an interlude apart from “real news.” He was an incisive journalist and commentator, with curiosity to match, who tackled the dark and depressing when that’s how the world turned. His stories in the aftermath of September 11 focused on the human stories, how lives were affected and people dealt with those effects.

He could fill in for Walter Cronkite on The CBS Evening News as comfortably and smoothly as he could chat with a birdwatcher who haunted a distant corner of a national park to catch that one magic flutter.

He maintained a similarly catholic demeanor when it came to his own beliefs. There was never a hint he was a Republican or Democrat, even after he co-wrote the patriotic recitation “Gallant Men,” which Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen turned into a top-40 hit in 1967. In his touring speeches, Osgood expressed great admiration for the days when Dirksen and his Democratic counterpart, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, would sit down over a glass of bourbon every night and discuss how they would handle Senate business the following day.

His book about presidential campaign humor, fittingly, drew equally from both parties, Sample: Republican candidate Barry Goldwater saying that famously fast-talking Democrat Hubert Humphrey “has been clocked at 275 words per minute, with gusts up to 340.”

He also wrote a book on the humor of World War II, rich turf that isn’t usually the focus of World War II books. It was a nice coincidence that World War II humor frequently popped up in songs, which blended nicely with Osgood’s own fondness for sitting down at the piano, tickling the ivories and crooning a tune.

He did that judiciously on Sunday Morning and more often in his lectures, favoring classics like “My Wild Irish Rose” or, seasonally, “White Christmas.”

For all the visual appeal of a man in a bow tie at a piano, he also mused on occasion that in some ways he preferred radio, where he got his start at Fordham University’s WFUV, to television. It sparked the viewer’s imagination, he said.

Whatever the medium, Charles Osgood was a welcome guest in any home, which doubtless explains why he had an open invitation for more than 50 years. Fittingly enough, he even wrote his own exit line:

Death, like life, is natural,
And not to be afraid of.
If you love life, guard well your time —
For time’s the stuff life’s made of.

(CBS Sunday Morning will devote its January 28 show, 9–10:30 a.m. EST, to a remembrance of Charles Osgood, who hosted the program for more than two decades.)

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”