Harvard Square Observer

Ernest Cassara

Ye Olde Observer and his Better Half are taking advantage of the wondrous cultural life of London.  He, however, ever caring for his readers, dug into the archives before he flew off and left the following selection.

“I am a Democrat, which was nothing I decided for myself but simply the way I was brought up, starting with the idea of Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the basis of the simple social compact by which we live and also You are not so different from other people so don't give yourself airs, which was drummed into us children back in the old days when everyone went to public schools. Don't be conceited. So you can write: goody-goody for you, but don't think you're a genius because, believe me, you're not. The democracy of the gospel. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All we like sheep have gone astray. These articles of faith, plus our common tongue and a fondness for jokes and the American landscape, bind us together in a union of souls, each one free, each one devoted to the union.”

So begins Garrison Keillor's, Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America (New York: Viking, 2004), part autobiography and part political discourse. The words “social compact,” that appear in his opening paragraph, recur throughout the book.

Growing up in an economically struggling family - he kept asking himself as a child whether they were poor - the devoted teachers of the public schools, one of which gave him confidence to write, and the University of Minnesota, where, despite having to work his way through, he received an education that was so fine that he is able to name several of the professors who inspired him, he became the “homegrown” Democrat of today. These were public institutions, he stresses.  The people of Minnesota made it possible for him and others like him to receive a splendid education, - at public expense - for they believe in helping each other. 

Keillor has little sympathy for the type of Republican who believes that everybody should be able to take care of himself.  He illustrates the “social compact” among Minnesotans in a number of ways, one of the most telling being that in St. Paul, if one  falls ill, rescue teams reach you within four minutes - those few minutes often making the difference between life and death.  In the Republican dominated suburbs, where social services are allowed to go to hell, the twenty minutes or more that it takes rescue crews to reach you often spells disaster.  Ruminating on the operation that saved his life, Keillor points out that it was public money that has brought bypass operations “to the point of utter ordinariness . . . .  How could I, whose life has been extended by this largesse, turn into an angry right-winger, a knee-jerk tax cutter, flogging public employees and the very idea of public service? How could a graduate of the University of Minnesota turn around after graduation and become a No New Taxes Republican and reduce his alma mater to the level of a community college? What towering ingratitude lies at the heart of the Republican Party! What a mean-spirited betrayal of the common life of this country!”

This reviewer has a confession to make.   Although he has often heard Keillor's radio program, “The Prairie Home Companion,” he had not up to now read his prose.  And, what a delightful surprise!  In the course of writing this review, it will be a herculean task to refrain from quoting from practically every page of the book.  It is necessary, however, if I am to convey his feelings regarding most Republicans, to give in to temptation at least once more: “Republicans have perfectly nice manners, normal hair, pleasant smiles, good deodorants, but when it comes down to cases, you do not want them to be monitoring your oxygen flow: they will set it to the minimum required to sustain basic brain function, and then they will recite a little prayer for you.  They are a party 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.”

Indeed, he doesn't.  His book's dedication is a perfect example: “To all of the Democratic-Farmer-Laborites of Minnesota.”  Those were the folks that made it possible for so many Minnesotans to rise into the middle class.  Then, many of them moved to the suburbs and became Republicans.  You may have read Keillor's article several weeks ago in the journal, “In These Times,” in which he asked, “How did the Party of Lincoln and Liberty transmogrify into the party of Newt Gingrich’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk?”

I should not give the impression that Keillor believes that the Democrats can do no wrong.  He takes issue with the “granola types of Cambridge and Berkeley,” who have devoted themselves to such causes as the ERA, in the process paying less attention to what has made the Democratic party the party concerned with the needs of working folk.  And, he condemns Democrats who have aided in passing laws that send kids to jail for years for growing a marijuana plant.

The book is, also, a paean to city life.  Keillor, in delightful autobiographical ruminations, tells of every day life in St. Paul, walking the streets, sitting in local cafés, drinking in the atmosphere that makes life worth living.  So different from the mean-spirited Republican-dominated suburbs.  While reading this book, I heard an NPR report on how solidly-Democratic-Farmer-Laborite Minnesota has seen the rise of Republicans and better understood why Keillor is so disappointed in what has transpired in the land of such as the late Paul Wellstone.

Lest you think that he does not have his say on President Bush and his administration, allow me to conclude with this quotation: “They slid into Washington on an oil slick like a gang of small-time mafiosi and sold out representative democracy to their special patrons and backers and corrupted a lot of good Christian people in the process.  This year, as in the past, they will portray us Democrats as embittered academics, desiccated Unitarians, wacked-out hippies and communards, people who talk to telephone poles, the party of the Deadheads.  They will wave enormous flags and show over and over the footage of firemen in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and bodies being carried out and they will lie about their economic policies with astonishing enthusiasm.  They denounce government as if it had only repressed them and civilization frustrated their noblest instincts . . . .”

Keillor was certainly prescient regarding the current political campaign!

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Harvard Square Commentary, November 6, 2006