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.

31 Comments

  1. The idea of today’s post is also compelling. How did we get into this mess of a situation? We’re more hated and less respected in the world today than we were six years ago. It makes one wonder.

  2. It was a slow and steady “revolution” off a steep cliff, Anne.
    Those of us who recognized the empty gaze staring back at us from our leaders and their rabid supporters did nothing to stem the bloody tide.
    Are we in too deep now to ever get out?
    I cannot believe more people aren’t angrier and rioting in the streets for our own regime change.

  3. Complacency. We think we’re safe from extremists but our extremists don’t riot in the streets. They make national policy. They were elected. We have to live with them or work to get more moderation.

  4. It’s fascinating how we have all reaped what half of us have not sown. That kind of division in national mainstream thinking paired against a singular and narrow governmental policy makes for a cleansing of an entire generation from afar in a misbegotten mission.

  5. It’s fascinating how we have all reaped what half of us have not sown. That kind of division in national mainstream thinking paired against a singular and narrow governmental policy makes for a cleansing of an entire generation from afar in a misbegotten mission.

  6. I like Keillor’s use of the language. Every man can recall the same type of experience — maybe not in exactly the same way. It brings his point across well.
    I’m going to suggest why people aren’t angrier and rioting in the streets with my own example.
    It’s hard for me to get excited about politics anymore. When I was younger, I was always involved in following what happened in Washington. I always kept up with the major stories of the days. I remember following election results in undergraduate school, drinking beer and eating pizza with friends. I volunteered to make telephone calls for the local Democratic party. I did unpaid internships on the Federal and State level when in school.
    When I was a little older, my views on certain issues changed and I volunteered to help with the GOP on my local level.
    After so many years of things that change, yet always remain the same, it gets tiresome.
    Most political leaders seem to want power for power’s sake. It doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican. For all the talk of reducing government spending, the Republicans still find ways to build bridges to no where. The Democrats have their problems as well. Locally, many seem to always get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, instead of helping the people they say they want to help.
    I’d get excited if there was hope for some real change. I don’t see it happening.
    I’m always going to vote. I vote religiously every time the opportunity is available — even in primaries.
    I’m fairly well plugged into the system, keep up with the news, and I’m not really interested in what goes on in Washington, or even our state capital.
    For people who were never interested to begin with, I can see why they wouldn’t be interested in discussing politics, let alone protesting for anything.
    I might be bummed out because I read in the paper that someone I know was killed. It didn’t even make it into my paper’s zoned edition. I saw it when I was looking at the paper’s website. The story isn’t even there now.
    Urban violence, drugs, the ravaging effects of joblessness and poverty, and the host of other social ills has become real to me — not just a topic of discussion or debate. Despite years of promising to do something and billions of dollars spent fighting a war on poverty, it seems that the only successes are few and far between. We are still fighting wars in our urban and to a lesser extent other neighborhoods that result in 16,000 plus people killed.
    We keep fighting the same battles year after year and nothing really seems to change. Despite all of the rhetoric, nothing really every changes. It all seems to remain the same.
    All of the failed promises have created apathy.
    I know I’m feeling pretty apathetic right now.

  7. I like Keillor’s use of the language. Every man can recall the same type of experience — maybe not in exactly the same way. It brings his point across well.
    I’m going to suggest why people aren’t angrier and rioting in the streets with my own example.
    It’s hard for me to get excited about politics anymore. When I was younger, I was always involved in following what happened in Washington. I always kept up with the major stories of the days. I remember following election results in undergraduate school, drinking beer and eating pizza with friends. I volunteered to make telephone calls for the local Democratic party. I did unpaid internships on the Federal and State level when in school.
    When I was a little older, my views on certain issues changed and I volunteered to help with the GOP on my local level.
    After so many years of things that change, yet always remain the same, it gets tiresome.
    Most political leaders seem to want power for power’s sake. It doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican. For all the talk of reducing government spending, the Republicans still find ways to build bridges to no where. The Democrats have their problems as well. Locally, many seem to always get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, instead of helping the people they say they want to help.
    I’d get excited if there was hope for some real change. I don’t see it happening.
    I’m always going to vote. I vote religiously every time the opportunity is available — even in primaries.
    I’m fairly well plugged into the system, keep up with the news, and I’m not really interested in what goes on in Washington, or even our state capital.
    For people who were never interested to begin with, I can see why they wouldn’t be interested in discussing politics, let alone protesting for anything.
    I might be bummed out because I read in the paper that someone I know was killed. It didn’t even make it into my paper’s zoned edition. I saw it when I was looking at the paper’s website. The story isn’t even there now.
    Urban violence, drugs, the ravaging effects of joblessness and poverty, and the host of other social ills has become real to me — not just a topic of discussion or debate. Despite years of promising to do something and billions of dollars spent fighting a war on poverty, it seems that the only successes are few and far between. We are still fighting wars in our urban and to a lesser extent other neighborhoods that result in 16,000 plus people killed.
    We keep fighting the same battles year after year and nothing really seems to change. Despite all of the rhetoric, nothing really every changes. It all seems to remain the same.
    All of the failed promises have created apathy.
    I know I’m feeling pretty apathetic right now.

  8. Hi Declan —
    Welcome! It is nice to meet you.
    Apathy and burnout work like drops of water on a rock. The same thing, the same message every day can wear down and wear out the strongest bedrock. Water has the power to change landscapes but a drop at a time it can drill through the earth.

  9. Hi Declan —
    Welcome! It is nice to meet you.
    Apathy and burnout work like drops of water on a rock. The same thing, the same message every day can wear down and wear out the strongest bedrock. Water has the power to change landscapes but a drop at a time it can drill through the earth.

  10. Yes, boredom is powerful, Declan — as is attacking any hint of dissent against the public policy wherever it might be found and to shout it down with overwhelming force of harsh opinion that will scare – or make bored – the offender and any further effort at opposition or continued counterattack.

  11. Yes, boredom is powerful, Declan — as is attacking any hint of dissent against the public policy wherever it might be found and to shout it down with overwhelming force of harsh opinion that will scare – or make bored – the offender and any further effort at opposition or continued counterattack.

  12. Hi David,
    Though I belong to a different country with a different political background but I sure can relate with your post.
    Your column reminded me of a short story in my language I read when I was young. It goes something like this:
    Many years ago there was a king who loved beautiful new clothes so much that he spent all his money on being finely dressed. He did nothing except spending except spending money and time for his wardrobe. One day two swindlers came and promised the emperor to make an extraordinarily beautiful fabric which had the amazing power of appearing invisible to those who are stupid. The king was convinced, paid those two weavers a huge amount according to their demand and waited. After six months they declared the clothes being ready; the king sent his minister to see it. The minister met those weavers asked for the clothes and could see nothing. The weavers were shocked, asked him to come closer and take a look. The minister was equally shocked with a fear of being marked as stupid. He went back to the king and reported that it was magnificent. The king wanted to see and wear those clothes. The weavers came and pretended to dress the king and finally took him in front of a mirror and asked for his opinion. The king beamed with joy (!) decided to go for a procession in his new clothes (!). When he stepped outside everyone started appreciating the fabric, the color and the dress!!! Finally, a little kid shouted – ‘’but the king doesn’t have anything on!’’ and the crowd gradually echoed –‘’the king doesn’t have anything on!’’
    The king shuddered, because he knew they were right but he thought ‘’the procession must go on!’’ So he carried himself more proudly…….
    [this story might be a translation from some other Indian or foreign language into my language, I don’t recollect properly…]

  13. Hi David,
    Though I belong to a different country with a different political background but I sure can relate with your post.
    Your column reminded me of a short story in my language I read when I was young. It goes something like this:
    Many years ago there was a king who loved beautiful new clothes so much that he spent all his money on being finely dressed. He did nothing except spending except spending money and time for his wardrobe. One day two swindlers came and promised the emperor to make an extraordinarily beautiful fabric which had the amazing power of appearing invisible to those who are stupid. The king was convinced, paid those two weavers a huge amount according to their demand and waited. After six months they declared the clothes being ready; the king sent his minister to see it. The minister met those weavers asked for the clothes and could see nothing. The weavers were shocked, asked him to come closer and take a look. The minister was equally shocked with a fear of being marked as stupid. He went back to the king and reported that it was magnificent. The king wanted to see and wear those clothes. The weavers came and pretended to dress the king and finally took him in front of a mirror and asked for his opinion. The king beamed with joy (!) decided to go for a procession in his new clothes (!). When he stepped outside everyone started appreciating the fabric, the color and the dress!!! Finally, a little kid shouted – ‘’but the king doesn’t have anything on!’’ and the crowd gradually echoed –‘’the king doesn’t have anything on!’’
    The king shuddered, because he knew they were right but he thought ‘’the procession must go on!’’ So he carried himself more proudly…….
    [this story might be a translation from some other Indian or foreign language into my language, I don’t recollect properly…]

  14. Katha!
    It is always wonderful to hear your unique and insightful point-of-view and I thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.
    I love your story, Katha, and here’s the adhesion of your story to our current American political paradox:
    http://www.prisonplanet.com/analysis_watson_011303_king.html
    I knew that story growing up as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and when I searched on that title I found this site:
    http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type1620.html
    That site has all of the cultural translations of that valuable tale from different countries.
    Thank you for the adhesion and the inspiration!

  15. Katha!
    It is always wonderful to hear your unique and insightful point-of-view and I thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.
    I love your story, Katha, and here’s the adhesion of your story to our current American political paradox:
    http://www.prisonplanet.com/analysis_watson_011303_king.html
    I knew that story growing up as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and when I searched on that title I found this site:
    http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type1620.html
    That site has all of the cultural translations of that valuable tale from different countries.
    Thank you for the adhesion and the inspiration!

  16. Hi David!
    Thanks for the wonderful resources!
    In this ‘’procession’’ I would consider myself as the ‘’disinterested’’ one. Though I claim to be a responsible and matured adult but this disengagement with the reality is also very true. Sound self-centered…. I know……..but either I truly lack the commitment that takes to bring ‘’change’’ in the political arena or the situation looks so hopeless that I don’t find it worth of putting my effort.

  17. Hi David!
    Thanks for the wonderful resources!
    In this ‘’procession’’ I would consider myself as the ‘’disinterested’’ one. Though I claim to be a responsible and matured adult but this disengagement with the reality is also very true. Sound self-centered…. I know……..but either I truly lack the commitment that takes to bring ‘’change’’ in the political arena or the situation looks so hopeless that I don’t find it worth of putting my effort.

  18. David,
    I understand your disappointment but I don’t feel motivated enough to waste my energy on something very futile. The scenario in my country is not rosy at all, but I can get involved in anything under the Sun except politics. Am I waiting for the voice of the little kid? I don’t think so. I am so indifferent to the whole situation…..which I feel dangerous…..

  19. David,
    I understand your disappointment but I don’t feel motivated enough to waste my energy on something very futile. The scenario in my country is not rosy at all, but I can get involved in anything under the Sun except politics. Am I waiting for the voice of the little kid? I don’t think so. I am so indifferent to the whole situation…..which I feel dangerous…..