Prairie fire

Garrison Keillor talks about why he is flamingly anti-Bush and pro-Democrat.

By David Talbot
Published August 21, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In the past, they were vaguely considered to be of the liberal persuasion, but unlike, say, Barbra Streisand, they chose not to wear their political passions -- or candidates - on their sleeves. But this is 2004, and a swarm of previously muted American notables -- from Bruce Springsteen to Howard Stern to Sarah Jessica Parker to, yes, Neil Diamond - have begun clamoring to tell the country exactly what they think of George W. Bush and what they would like their fellow citizens to do about him in November.

The latest to add his wry and humorous voice to the anti-Bush chorus is Garrison Keillor, bard of America's sensible flatland, who has just published "Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts From the Heart of America," an entertaining encomium to the progressive values he holds dear. In it Keillor, the host of public radio's "Prairie Home Companion," writes warmly of the homespun Scandinavian wisdom that informed his childhood -- "Don't Think You're Special Because You're Not," which is just the local way, he notes, of reminding people to take care of their neighbors. It's a basic human value, Keillor observes, that the party of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Tom DeLay gleefully abandoned years ago. "They are a party," writes Keillor, "that is all about perceptions, the Christian party that conceals enormous glittering malice and is led by brilliant bandits who are dividing and conquering the sweet land I grew up in. I don't accept this."

We recently communicated via e-mail with Keillor, who once served as Salon's "Mr. Blue" advice columnist, from his home (we assume) in St. Paul, Minn.

By and large, you have not been known in the past for flaunting your political opinions. But now you've come out loudly and proudly as a die-hard Democrat. Why did you decide to reveal yourself this year -- and do you worry about alienating your Republican fans out there?

I've always been a Democrat. Never tried to hide it, never thought I had to. "A Prairie Home Companion" isn't a political show, and by and large I hate preaching on the show. I've done it a few times and never felt easy about it. The show ought to be entertaining in every sense of the term, to people of any political stripe, my people and also ignorant fascist bastards. Writing a book is another can of beans entirely. I wrote this out of pure conviction that the country I love is in grave danger of sliding away, and one does not stifle those thoughts. I don't know why Republicans should be alienated. Ricky Skaggs has been traveling around with President Bush, singing at his rallies, and I sure am not alienated by that. Ricky is a great artist and a good guy, and I hope I get to sing with him again.

The conservative loudspeaker system has largely succeeded in convincing the public that liberals are elitists, out of touch with their everyday concerns. But as you observe in your book, the progressive Minnesotans you grew up had humility and charity drummed into them. How did Democrats lose their image, at least in some circles, as the party of the common man and woman?

I don't know any common people personally, though I do know people living on a narrow financial ledge who work terrifically hard to keep from falling off. Young writers, artists, musicians, for sure, but also office workers trying to pay off college loans, own a car, lead a decent life with some music and fun in it, and not to drown in credit card debt. For them, the middle-class life -- the house, the kids, the leisure -- is not so attainable as it was for their folks. You can't swing it on $12.50 an hour. This is a great country for people who earn a quarter-million a year or more, and the others are getting gypped. Democrats were put on earth to speak up for them. We believe in the energy and inventiveness and wild ambition of the young, the marginal, the outsider, the dispossessed -- that's where the genius and soul of this country resides, and we should not crush it underfoot.

Last week I saw the new Millennium Park that Mayor [Richard M.] Daley put up on the waterfront in Chicago, where the Illinois Central tracks used to be. It's magnificent, and anybody can walk in. You walk past the Gehry pavilion and the sculpture and reflecting pool and the gardens, and you walk away with a sense of democratic grandeur and hope and purpose. That's why we defend the notion of first-class public schools and transit and libraries and affordable higher education: Like Teddy Roosevelt and the Victorian reformers, we believe in the divine spark within every last soul and celebrate that in public magnificence -- Yellowstone, Central Park, the land-grant universities, the meritocracy, the ideal of public service as a noble calling.

What some people call elitism is simply a belief that God grants gifts to people regardless of social standing, and a Democrat wants the bus driver's kids who have a God-given ability to be recognized and uplifted. I want the University of Minnesota to be a great institution so that a kid from Biwabik or Blue Earth or Ortonville can entertain enormous ambitions, not just be trained to be a serf in a cubicle. It won't happen with Republicans in power. These shysters slid into power on a grease slick and have to be run out. The moment we do, political wisdom will change and the conservative machine will be quiet for a few weeks and we Democrats will have a new image.

Speaking of elitism, the Bush campaign has done a pretty good job of portraying John Kerry as a snooty, French-speaking Ivy Leaguer. John F. Kennedy -- whom you write very fondly about -- was from an even more privileged New England, but he had a gift for electrifying the American public. What can today's JFK learn about campaigning from the 1960s JFK?

John F. Kennedy had a love of history and language. He came to politics by way of literature, and that was electrifying to me in the fall of 1960. He was a war hero who had a gift of public grace and utterance, which was quite remarkable, compared to the huffing and puffing of Richard Nixon, a cartoon pol. John Kerry has a similar gift of grace; you listen to him and you know there's somebody home, the lights are on, the elevator is working. This is electric, compared to George W. Bush, who is the shallowest man to occupy the White House since Calvin Coolidge. Kerry is a real trouper. He had to overcome a ton of dismal press last winter, is up against the Republican radio machine, which didn't exist in 1960, seems to enjoy crowds and hoopla, and compared to Mr. Bush, the Speaker of Very Short Sentences, Mr. Kerry is positively Churchillian. I think his snoot is a pretty regular snoot.

You write that "this is the year for passion." But that's not a word widely associated with John Kerry. This week, for instance, Kerry repudiated's passionate TV ad against George Bush's cushy and spotty military service. And it took him weeks to fire back at his Republican swift boat critics. Do Democratic presidential candidates tend to be too reasonable and too reluctant to get down in the muck of electoral politics like the win-at-any-cost Republicans?

You're thinking about Gov. Dukakis [in 1988] and maybe President Carter in 1980. John Kerry has plenty of passion, but there's no need to spend it on trivia like Mr. Bush's military record, which is only important to Michael Moore and the carpet chewers. (And someday to the historians.) No need to expend passion on the Republicans' attempt to trash Mr. Kerry's military record either -- that speaks for itself. What is worth being passionate about is the tide of inequity in America, the ritual bleeding of the middle class, our national insecurity, and the administration's bullheaded ignorance in foreign policy that has gotten us -- not irredeemably, I hope -- into a religious war against Islam that could easily occupy us for the next 20 years and change our lives in a hundred ways, including the reintroduction of the military draft.

What a disaster this shallow and deceitful president has been! But Mr. Kerry is wise enough to know that reasonableness and high principle must anchor his campaign. Anger doesn't play so well as a theme in presidential politics. And much depends on fate. He is jousting, showing the colors, rallying the faithful, and biding his time.

You write eloquently about the importance of public institutions -- like schools, libraries and transportation -- and how in the age of Republican privatization they have become an endangered species. Why is it so essential for Americans to fight to preserve them?

Without them, we begin to slide backwards down the slippery slope toward a country of walled compounds like in the Middle Ages, in which the nobles and gentry live in fear of bloodthirsty peasants with their big cudgels and roving brigands and the hated infidels. I'd rather live in St. Paul.

You suggest that all social progress in the past century -- civil rights, women's rights, clean air -- is the work of Democrats. Can you think of one important contribution made by the Republicans?

Many. Richard Nixon was a good deal responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency and the push to clean up the Great Lakes. The conservation movement that paved the way, so to speak, for the whole Green agenda was very much a Republican thing. The Americans With Disabilities Act, which gave us Handi-vans and wheelchair-accessible facilities and those little ramps carved into the curbs, was brought about by Republicans (and Democrats). Republicans have been good critics of government, and good satirists at times. Republican libertarianism is a useful antidote to our Democratic/neurotic tendency to want to put up a warning sign on uneven terrain and make cowboys do their whooping in designated whooping areas. Republicans used to contribute a lot, back before they let the fanatics and teeth grinders take over and turn their party into the Leave Me Alone party, intent on proving that government is inherently inept, and they've done such damage to America in the past decade that will take a century of saints to fix.

You write that Richard Nixon was "the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor." What in God's name happened to the Grand Old Party?

At the moment, they are drenched in hubris and self-regard, incapable of telling their own history. It takes defeat and regret to give a person a little perspective and self-knowledge, and once the Republicans have gained that, one of them will tell us what happened to the GOP. Like this old Nebraska Republican who, now that he's retiring from Congress, comes out with a closely reasoned attack on the administration's Middle East policy. George W. Bush will retire to his Crawford plantation in January and begin work on his Georgic lament, in which he meditates on the dangers of success. Political skill in the absence of statesmanship is the first act of a tragedy.

You write with great love about your native state and its traditions of Scandinavian decency. But Minnesota also elected Jesse Ventura and Norm Coleman -- what went wrong?

We got a kick out of Jesse "The Body" Ventura and all the notoriety it got us: first state with a governor with a stage name. But Norm Coleman and Jesse Ventura are as different as can be. Jesse was a plain-spoken man, and he had his principles -- he vetoed a post-9/11 Republican bill to require the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in every public schoolroom. He said that Minnesota kids were by gosh as patriotic as they could possibly be and the bill was an insult to the intelligence. Jesse was pro-choice and opposed to gay-baiting and, above all, Jesse was opposed to bullshit and cant and hypocrisy.

Norm Coleman is a man without a single principled bone in his body. He was a liberal Democrat who saw greater career opportunities on the other side and one night he sewed himself a new set of beliefs and crossed over. He is the first truly cynical politician in Minnesota in my lifetime. What went wrong? Sen. Paul Wellstone's plane crashed in the woods.

What do you think of Al Franken's chances if he decides to run for public office in Minnesota? As someone who believes in politics as a higher calling, would you ever consider running?

Al ought to give up radio, which is awfully hard work for a TV guy like himself, and establish residence in Minneapolis, near where he grew up, and get himself a late-model car and drive around and see the state. It's a wonderful place and, doggone it, people would like him. He can announce his campaign in a couple years and start raising money. I'll do some fundraisers for him myself. Al is a natural on the stump. He has a terrific grin that makes people feel good, unlike so many Midwestern liberals, who are about as warm as a concrete block. And he's a genuinely good man, a family man, patriotic, kind to a fault, passionate about justice, and I happen to think he'd enjoy serving in the U.S. Senate. The Senate is a fine platform for exposing deceit and corruption, which is a specialty of Al's. And you can talk for as long as you like.

As for me, I have unfulfilled ambitions as a writer, and writing is the best way to spend what time is left to me -- sit at my dining room table and try to write what is given to me to write, a comic novel, a sonnet, a Lake Wobegon story, a parody of the president, a limerick about a lady named Reba who cried out in rapture, "Ich liebe," a rhapsody to homegrown tomatoes. I've loved doing this all my life, and one should not turn away from good luck as good as that.

Who do you think will win the presidential race in November?

John Kerry. President Bush was campaigning on Wednesday here in St. Paul and he sounded awfully loopy, like an old camp counselor who's done too many campfires. According to him, we're bringing democracy to the Middle East and the economy is turning the corner. He said it about 10 times, in those tiny mincing sentences of his, and there isn't anybody over the age of 12 who really believes him. After the rally, his flotilla of helicopters flew over our house to the airport and a few minutes later it was Republican rush hour. I was bringing my daughter home from her swimming lesson and a steady stream of Bush/Cheney-stickered cars came by, driven by grim-faced people who rolled through the stop sign and roared up the street -- Republicans just don't notice people on foot, especially not small children -- and they didn't look happy as if they'd just seen a winner, and I don't think they had.

What would you tell a good-hearted citizen who is seriously considering casting their vote for Ralph Nader?

The thrill of Naderism is in telling your Democratic pals that you're thinking about ralphing and seeing them get all flushed and earnest and wring their hands and roll their eyes and moan. Actually going into the voting booth and ralphing is no great pleasure, compared to the remorse you'll feel if Mr. Bush is elected and fresh horrors begin to unfold and the nadir is reached and the Bushies keep going down, down, down. I say, Stand tall for Ralph, wear his button, wave his flag, put on his cologne in the morning, be as ralphic as you like, but in that private sacred moment, make your X for the Man.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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