- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

HOMEGROWN DEMOCRAT: A FEW PLAIN THOUGHTS FROM THE HEART OF AMERICA

By Garrison Keillor

Viking, $19.95, 238 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN C. CHALBERG

Way back in high school Garrison Keillor was, by his own account, just another not-very-bright “oddball,” but an “oddball” who somehow stumbled upon the secret to hiding his “ordinariness”: He kept quiet. “A person almost always burnishes his reputation by shutting up,” he advises. If only my fellow Minnesotan had kept that in mind before he let loose with this piece of his mind.

Not that the host of “A Prairie Home Companion” thinks he is capable of throwing a tantrum. He is, after all, a liberal, and “liberalism is the politics of kindness.” No doubt his overwhelming sense of kindness drove him to divide Republicans into better than 50 charming categories. Kindness compels me to shorten his list to two: “hairy-backed swamp developers” and “Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-a-Sketch president with a voice like a dial tone.”

If this is a beloved humorist’s idea of being funny, he apparently hasn’t been able to, as liberals once advised, move on.

Mr. Keillor isn’t always reaching for those clever laugh lines. More than occasionally, the furrows of his fevered brow deepen at the mere thought of a “Christian party” led by “brilliant bandits” and “conceal[ing] enormous glittering malice.”

Still, buried in all of this sputtering and muttering is a thesis of sorts. Because tax-slashing Republicans are “anarchists” at heart, liberals have become conservatives by default. Who else, Mr. Keillor mutters, will look out for the common good? After all, Americans don’t leave people to die in ditches. At least Democrats don’t, he adds by way of kind-hearted clarification.

But let’s face it. Garrison Keillor is right about this common good stuff — if he’s permitted to get away with equating the common good with enacting and preserving every Democratic program between FDR’s first “hundred days” and whatever vote-getting entitlement next springs to kind minds.

Let’s face something else, “A Prairie Home Companion” fans. Behind all that owlish avuncularity is one ticked-off dude. Worse than that, with high school a distant memory and social security on the horizon, our once congenial Saturday evening host is one sputter-step away from reducing himself to the woebegone status of party hack/flack. Maybe it’s all the result of too many lonely nights at the Side Track Tap.

By his own account, Mr. Keillor spends a good deal of time frequenting St. Paul cafes and coffee shops in search of his daily ration of an Americano and biscotti. Along the way he also encounters real people living “real lives” that have “real consequences” (read: negative consequences whenever those determined-to-tear-the-social-fabric-into-shreds Republicans sneak into office).

That fabric, Mr. Keillor tells us, has been primarily held together by America’s public school system. Education, particularly public education, is a “heroic task and the answer to just about everything.” Certainly it was a large part of the answer for this oddball graduate of Anoka [Minn.] High School, class of 1960, and the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Keillor is at his best — and his best can still be utterly charming — when he waxes autobiographical about teachers, especially underpaid old maid teachers, who mattered in his life. Not everything is awful about the generally godawful “Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts From the Heart of America.”

But has he ever stopped to think how public education has changed (and mostly for the worst) over the past four decades? For starters, all those heroic teachers, who held his feet to the fire or took his silence for brilliance, are long since gone. But all Mr. Keillor seems to notice is that local school boards have been taken over by creationist “rednecks.”

Whether it be education or politics, Mr. Keillor seems stuck in a time warp, circa 1960 — or back when Democrats really were concerned about the common good. The Democrat in Mr. Keillor’s young life should have been Hubert Humphrey. But in the fall of 1960, the fledgling college reporter covered a John Kennedy campaign stop in Minneapolis. And ever since then he’s been swept away by JFK. By anybody’s reckoning a “homegrown Democrat” should have stuck with his homegrown (if South Dakota-born) senator. Poor Hubert. He just “didn’t travel well.”

“Nothing I read later about Kennedy and his life,” swoons an older Mr. Keillor, “essentially changed how I felt about him the night I walked back to campus from his speech in October 1960.” Huh? “[H]is life”? Would that be a reference to what we now know about JFK’s recklessly compulsive womanizing? And how is it that subsequently reading about Kennedy’s sexual escapades could possibly have changed Mr. Keillor’s feelings, circa 1960?

Strange sentences crop up more than occasionally in this book-length rant. How about this: “Democrats have changed America in simple ways in the past fifty years that have benefited everyone.” Editor, editor, where art thou, editor?

Maybe the problem is the genre. Mr. Keillor claims that he really didn’t want to write a political book. But look what he went and did. He spurned his treasured biscotti, downed a handful of Powdermilk Biscuits, and summoned up the strength to sit down and do what had to be done.

But, hey, that’s okay. He’s a writer, and writing is “fun,” and what makes it great fun is the chance to “irritate and enrage.” The problem here is that sometimes writers themselves get so irritated and enraged that they forget their manners, any sense of fairness, and important lessons learned in high school.

In fairness, Mr. Keillor is capable of kind words for dead Republicans. Richard Nixon exhibited a “Christian obligation to the poor.” And he likes the Ike who purged that party of its “paranoid Roosevelt haters.”

Mr. Keillor even takes an occasional jab at his fellow liberals. They’ve “doinked around” with the classic curriculum. They have a weakness for rule-making and language corruption (“persons of noncolor” adds a certain color to his complexion). There is even an offhand reference to his “feeling stranded in a nation more like the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1914” than the “sweet land of liberty” (of his youth?).

While he provides no context for this remark, it may well be a muted criticism of liberal attempts to balkanize America. If so, he has chosen (finally!) to be silent. It’s when he’s screamingly unsilent that he gets himself in trouble. In reference to September 11, Mr. Keillor accuses the Bush administration of “taking out a trademark on the tragedy.” This may be a nice attempt at alliteration, but a “tragedy” September 11 wasn’t.

And who knows this — or thinks he knows this — but Garrison Keillor himself. After all, he hints darkly, our “shallow and hard-shelled” president had been “warned” about what was to befall America on that fateful day. Hmmm … What are the Garrison Keillors of 2004 if not paranoid Bush-haters?

Mr. Keillor also sees September 11 as an opportunity for Republicans to impose a “new Achtung Department” on this sweet land of liberty, to play patriotism “like a $29 accordion,” to portray Democrats as “Al Qaeda supporters” and invade a country that had “exactly nothing” to do with the attack that wasn’t a tragedy. And an opportunity to win an automatically fraudulent second term, thereby further embittering the likes of Garrison Keillor.

One shudders at the prospect of reading a sequel to this book sometime in, say, 2008. Please, dear Garrison, recover your folksiness while there’s still time. If you can’t do that, then think back to what you learned in high school. And if that’s not possible, maybe you should take the advice you offer to Republicans, namely to “go find a tank town on the old N.P. line” where you can “be as paranoid and angry as you like.”

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg likes his Americanos without biscotti and teaches American history in Minnesota. He can be reached at: chuck.chalberg@normandale.edu.

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