Date: Fri, 6 May 94 20:51:09 PDT
Subject: Politico-cultural ruminations
Forwarded-by: Dave@yost.com (Dave Yost)
The soulful president meets the superficial generation
More feel than real: a scandal for our times
I didn't want to come down here and talk about Whitewater,
but as long as the president has brought it up, I'll say a
few things. I know that if I don't talk about Whitewater,
some of you will think I know something about it. I could
say that I've never been in Arkansas in my life, but some
of you might ask: Why didn't you say that a month ago?
All I know is what I read in the papers, so Whitewater is
a complete mystery to me, as is most of what goes on in
Washington. But one can get along pretty well in this
country without knowing much about Washington. There are
people in America who don't know the names of elected
officials and they still are able to sit up in the morning
and take nourishment and do useful things.
It's a big country, and there is more to life than politics.
Rush Limbaugh voted in a presidential election for the first
time in his life in 1988 when he was 47 years old. I'm
amazed by that fact. I guess it took him a while to figure
out what he thought, and if I thought what he thought, I'd
still be puzzled by it. It must be fun to say what Rush
Limbaugh says, but imagine having to believe it and base
your life on it.
So I'm way behind on developments in Washington.
I'm still astonished to have a president who is younger than
me. For so long, it seemed that the country was run by old
jowly guys in baggy brown suits who peered at television
cameras like they were bombs and who read from note cards
a prepared text saying that all reasonable steps had been
taken and -- though one couldn't be sure just what the
outcome of the situation might be -- they were keeping a
close eye on the matter and there was basis for hope that
all would work out eventually.
And then suddenly to have a president who was young enough
to be as stunned by President Kennedy as I was, who was
young enough to have the same draft problems I had, who not
only knew who Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and Otis
Redding and Roy Orbison and the Coasters were, but who could
have worked in their bands.
To realize that the country is now in the hands of people
our own age is a profound moment of truth: Does this make
us more confident or less? Not that there is a choice --
the supply of jowly old guys in baggy suits is running low.
I'm not particularly high on my generation these days: The
generation I admire is my parents, which got out of school
during the Depression and fought the war and remade the
country and enjoyed the fruits of the '60s. To me, in 1960,
they seemed smug and complacent, sitting on their patios
and watching the flames in the barbecue grill, but now I
think maybe they were just happy how everything had turned
My generation strikes me as self-absorbed. You hear them
at the grocery store deliberating the balsamic vinegar and
the olive oils, the cold- pressed virgin olive oil vs. the
warm-pressed experienced olive oil, and you think, "These
people probably subscribe to an olive oil magazine."
They are people with too much money and very little
character, people who are all sensibility and no sense, all
nostalgia and no history, the people my Aunt Eleanor used
to call "a $10 haircut on a 69-cent head" -- people I would
call yuppie swine.
Whitewater is their kind of scandal. It's carbonated, and
it's less about what's real than it is about perceptions.
It's all surface. But people of my generation are into
surface. That's why they are so easily disillusioned by
politics. It doesn't look pretty. How convenient for them
-- to grow up in a country that offers us such opportunities
and blessings as would be only a fantasy in most of the
world, and then check out in disillusionment.
I like this president. He's full of soul and he doesn't
check out. I like him, even though I didn't go to his
church. I'm a Northern liberal, one of God's frozen people,
and we Northern liberals tend to be a stiff and sour bunch,
who are in favor of humanity in principle but don't love
anybody in particular. We're not comfortable with Southern
politicians. We associate warm climate with lack of
intelligence -- our way of justifying living where we do.
But I like this president, and I think the country does.
I admire his love of politics, the pleasure he takes from
being in crowds, looking at people, shaking hands, and his
great love of talk.
This president has been nothing but bold in bringing major
divisive issues into the public forum and declaring himself
on them. He's gone into open forums on radio and television
that a president could very well hold himself above, and
he's done it with dignity and humor -- despite his
I haven't had a month as tough as the month he just had
since I was 16 years old, and it was one of the main reasons
I decided to grow up.
When I was 16, my parents were like the Washington press.
They felt that they were entitled to know a great deal more
about my life than they knew. They were watching me at all
times and, whenever they saw anything unusual, they always
read something dark into it.
The presence of matches always indicated the use of tobacco,
for example, even though -- as I tried to explain to them
-- a teen-age boy might also use matches for other purposes,
such as to light candles with. But, to my parents, the use
of candles indicated the presence of Catholicism, which was
They were journalists: You just couldn't talk to them
because they kept dragging down the conversation to new
depths of suspicion. They said, "Just tell us the truth,"
but the truth was complicated, and they had already made up
Nobody blames the press for enjoying its work, or for
enjoying stories about an administration in panic, White
House staffers thin-lipped and pale in public, all because
of hard-hitting reporting, though the stories may not be
exactly true. I'm not saying you do this, but you may have
gone to school with people who do.
Sometimes, in the news business, people create cliffhangers
where there are no cliffs and write about events in a tone
of urgency that has no basis in fact. I'm not saying that
you do this, but you may know people who do. And that is
why some journalists' credibility depends largely on the
forgetfulness of the American people.
There is a great danger when the press wanders from the
facts. If you do, you will be held to a different standard
than the one you're used to. Journalists are held to a
standard of truth, which is demonstrable, at least over the
But when you slip into the field of fiction and
entertainment, then you will be expected to be fascinating.
This is going to shorten your careers. Nobody can be
fascinating for long, but people can be accurate and
responsible for an entire career. And I wish all of you
long and distinguished careers.
- - -
This is an excerpt from a speech that humorist Garrison
Keillor delivered in late April, 1994 to the Radio and
Television Correspondents' Association in Washington.
© 1994 Peter Langston