I was at a playground with my daughter the other day, reading "The Two Kinds of Decay" by Sarah Manguso (good book) and watching my girl as she stood at the perimeter of children playing and studied them, exactly as I did when I was a kid, working up the nerve to plunge into the fray. She is braver than I -- she plunges. I tended to retreat and have been backpedaling ever since.
I was sitting on a bench in the shade with the nannies and mommies, most of them on cellphones, talking about problem men, problem cleaning ladies, problem mothers, and the woman sitting next to me got up to go see to her child, and then stopped and came back and got her purse out of the stroller and took it with her.
I was offended. I am an author, not a purse snatcher, and you would think she could distinguish between the two, would you not? Does a purse snatcher sit on a bench reading the latest Sarah Manguso book? Do you think that when inmates go to the prison library, they ask for Sarah Manguso? I doubt it.
When she came back I wanted to tell her, "I am not a crook," but remembered Richard Nixon saying that and how the very words immediately told you what a liar he was, so I sat and brooded, and then it occurred to me that if you play it cool and don't talk to people, then people are entitled to assume the worst. I hadn't said so much as "Good morning" to her and so she was wary.
The willingness to put yourself out there and let people poke you and examine your teeth and look in your ears and up your nose and trot when they tell you to trot is what good politicians have in common, unlike us writers who are secretive brooders, observers on the perimeter, and what's notable about Barack Obama is that he is both: He has the self-confidence but also the smarts and integrity to put himself down on paper. His is the only candidacy I can think of that was launched by an autobiography. Usually that comes later and is written by a ghost.
Now that he's won the nomination, he is picking up an enormous retinue of soothsayers, sages, wizards, armorers, courtiers, pages and maybe a fool or two, but you know -- you just know -- that the author of "Dreams From My Father" is still there behind that smiling face. You know he knows who he is.
Here in Minnesota we are contemplating the fact that Jesse Ventura scores 24 percent in the polls for a Senate race in Minnesota he hasn't even entered. A phenomenal phenomenon. Al Franken has won the Democratic endorsement to run against the Bush water boy Norman Coleman and when Minnesotans are offered our Famous Former Gov as a third candidate, one-fourth of them say, Yes, why not?
People have been making fun of Jesse for years, me included -- how could you not? The man is an entertainment. But he still commands respect and if you're curious to know why, take a look ata clip on YouTube of Jesse telling Larry King what he thinks of Bush and Cheney and the war in Iraq.
When politicians take up the war, they treat it gingerly and say that of course there are no easy solutions and they give you a string of careful observations smothered by modifying clauses, and what Jesse is saying is -- this whole thing is an evil mess brought about by old lying chickenhawks who sent 4,000 American men and women to die for a cause that the chickenhawks themselves would never have volunteered for or sent their own children. "We marched in there and we can march out," says Jesse.
Damn. How can you not admire a man who hauls off and talks straight like that? Of course, one good fastball doesn't make a U.S. senator and when you consider other aspects of Jesse -- the thin skin, the towering ego, the 92 percent closed mind -- you think twice about giving him a badge, but he knows something about politics that is easily forgotten. You need to talk to the people out there: It's not enough to talk to yourself. Don't sit thinking big thoughts and expect people to get you. Don't let your soothsayers and armorers get between you and the people, Barack. Speak for yourself.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.