Writers learn how to write from other writers. The mark of a great — and imitation-worthy — writer like Garrison Keillor is his keen talent for making the ordinary unique and then using a mighty pen to force terrifying into ordinary so the horror can be felt by frightened minds too feeble to think beyond the boundaries of national pride.
Words are powerful instruments for destruction. When those who trade in funny observation turn on you — even ever-so-slightly — the world shifts just a bit against you and your rightful adversaries are given a glimpse of light and hope on the horizon:
But who tells the truth to the man who is driving straight into the setting sun and thinks he’s heading due east? His wife murmurs that, uh, maybe we should look at a map, and he accuses her of being a defeatist who tries to tear him down any way she can in order to conceal her own lack of ideas.
The man is heading the wrong way and speeding and the idiot light is flashing — low oil pressure — and the idiot is trying to be manly and authoritative but everyone can see he’s faking it, hoping for God to rearrange the landscape for his convenience. Someone ought to speak up, and yet he is fascinating. As the administration is these days, so resonant and believable.
The Arctic icecap melts and the Chinese finance our tax cuts and someday we will have spent six years and trillions of dollars to bring democracy to Iraq, whatever that may mean, and the SUV of state turns toward the setting sun, driven by cocker spaniels. And there is so much intensity there, and they are so much in the moment.
Then days pass and Keillor takes up a mightier pen against a more specific target to make it clear why we need to take a divided stand against the wrongs in the world we helped create by our hushed inaction and our incomprehensible quiet and our damnable disinterest:
He has met the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and visited with young people horribly wounded in the war, which would be a soul-searing experience for any commander. To see a beautiful young woman who must now live without an arm as a direct result of decisions you made — who could see this and not scour the depths of your conscience?
And to suffer pangs of conscience even as you exhort the public to have confidence in you — this has to be an interesting experience. Your mistakes are responsible for terrible suffering, but you stand among your victims and urge public support for your policies as a sign of support for the people those policies have injured. This is a plot worthy of Shakespeare.
And then Keillor’s magnificent pen is embedded and quivering in the dying heart of a cause that never had a case for life or liberty in the first place except to wake the most vulnerable among us — the sleepy innocence of our patriotic youth — and giddily wrap them in the flag and solemnly walk them into The Valley of Death accompanied by bright trumpets and sullen footfalls of a funeral procession:
So why does he still seem so small, our president? In his presidential library, he’ll be portrayed as Abraham Lincoln after Chancellorsville and FDR after Corregidor, but to most of us, the crisis in Washington today stems from a man intellectually and temperamentally unequipped to rise to the challenge.
Most of us sense that when, decades from now, the story of this administration comes out, it will be one of ordinary incompetence, of rigid and incurious people overwhelmed by events in a world they don’t dare look around and see.
Today is Presidents’ Day in the United States. Let us try to remember the history of the bravery of our national leadership that led us into the enlightenment of the mind and not the fear that presently drags us down into a death spiral of ongoing foolishness and folly.