The next big thing

Americans are a restless tribe, never afraid to pick up and fly away.

Published November 28, 2007 11:41AM (EST)

The sudden rise of Mike Huckabee in the Republican jousts is a cool plot turn, one that makes you lean forward and turn up the sound. An amiable, well-spoken Southern conservative with a Gomer Pyle face challenging the teeth-baring Giuliani and the sleek Romney. You watch him field questions for a few minutes and the man's appeal is pretty clear. He comes off as a real person, not a caricature: He sounds like a guy talking to you, not a stiff with a set of applause lines.

He's a straight conservative but with exceptions -- he's in favor of healthcare for poor kids, he dares talk about the environment. And he's a new contender, and that's a big point in his favor. Romney is synthetic and Giuliani is toxic and people are ready for the next thing. The whole rationale of Giuliani is that we're in terrible danger and need a mean SOB to run things, but we've never elected a president on those grounds. And now here is a smart conservative who doesn't hate anybody.

We're a restless tribe. The soup gets thin, toss in something new, turn up the heat. Depressed? Put on your coat and get out of the house. Myself, I am an old plowhorse hitched to a load of guilt and regret and overdue assignments and I envy the young who are bright and jumpy and skinny as snakes and free to pick up and fly away. L.A., New York, Chicago, Miami -- make them an offer and off they go.

The difference between Germans and Americans, says a friend in Berlin, is that Germans are extremely reluctant to move in order to find work and Americans have been doing it for 200 years. Germans sit tight and so the division between East and West will persist for decades. Not so here. Charles Schulz pulled up stakes and left Minnesota for California in 1958, and one gathers from David Michaelis' excellent new biography that Schulz's wife was tired of snow and "Peanuts" was simply too successful for him to feel comfortable among judgmental, self-effacing Lutherans, so off he went and he never looked back. The American story.

I'm an old guy so I know about change. I remember when Southerners were Democrats and the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln. I remember when you could stroll into the Capitol in Washington as if it were a county courthouse and look at the statuary in the rotunda. I remember when the hardware store was run by an old cranky guy who stood at the front counter guarding the merchandise and expected you to know the names of things. He was a bully and he went out of business and now we go to the big discount store and it's a lot more fun.

I am descended from a man named David Powell who was restless all through the 19th century and though a farmer, he moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then Indiana, then Illinois, then Iowa, then Missouri, and in one last thrust forward, he rode into Oklahoma in the great land rush and got 20 miles, felt ill, got off his horse, sat down under a tree, and died outdoors with his eye on the trail ahead. A good death.

We are not a timid or fearful people. My friend of 30 years came around with his new girlfriend (replacing the old girlfriend, who replaced the wife, whom I liked a lot) and she gave me a wan smile and sat patiently through some chitchat about events that preceded her, and then she put an arm around him and gave him a no-nonsense look that said, It's time to go. I invested a lot in him over the years but she decided that I'm history. Goodbye, old pal. I understand, believe me. I've walked away from some old scenes myself and felt the exhilaration of a new start.

An old friend decided to retire to Santa Fe, N.M., and I went to the retirement dinner and wished her well, but I was thinking, "Liz, you dope, get over it. Take a week off and get some sleep. Be real. You're a northern prairie person. You think the Hopis are going to adopt you and teach you the mysteries of the Earth, the Wind and the Rain? No, you're going to watch movies on cable TV in the morning and join a class for people who need an excuse to make bad art, and you're going to develop a bad Kahlua habit." But off she goes confidently into the future, happy to make the change, just like the rest of us.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney Republican Party Rudy Giuliani