The Old Scout
Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.
We Are What We Are
May 12, 2009
Only one out of five Americans is willing to describe himself or herself as a Republican these days, and frankly I am tempted to become one of them. For the variety, and because they need me and because when I heard former Vice President Cheney talk about the meaning of Republicanism the other day — "We are what we are," he said — I felt drawn to the simplicity and dignity of that. And I have never been a Republican, just as I've never been to South America, and that makes it tempting.
I look at pictures of Machu Picchu and think, "Why don't I get on a plane and go?" And I look at Dick Cheney and think, "This man needs friends." I voted for Obama, and will vote for him again in 2012, Lord willing, but in the meantime, it's a free country.
And it is just a whole lot more satisfying to be part of a militant righteous minority than to be in the anxiety-ridden confused majority — to be a nightrider and ambusher rather than one of the people in the long wagon train — to be free to juke around and say wild stuff and know that it doesn't make a dime's worth of difference.
I went to a party the other day and heard the word "torture" and said that I didn't think we should prosecute the Bush lawyers who wrote those torture memos, and people jumped all over me like I was an escaped Nazi, so as long as I was persona non grata, I said some more stuff — that America would be a better country if we took the vote away from people over 65 because they are selfish and greedy and the future of America is its young. People about dropped their drinks. And then I said that cat ownership is a sign of emotional immaturity and a good predictor of a tendency toward violent crime. I saw lifelong friends turn away in disgust. And you know something? I Don't Care. It felt good.
Liquor wasn't the cause. Crankiness was. And crankiness is the birthright of Republicans.
As Mr. Cheney said, "We are what we are. We're Republicans. We have certain things we believe in. And maintaining our loyalty and commitment to those principles is vital to our success." A good thing to say, and many a president of the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Moose, the Knights of Pythias, and the Ancient and Mystic Order of Hoot Owls has said something similar: We will not bend our principles so as to please people we didn't like in the first place.
As Proust said in his "Remembrance of Things Past" — or, in French, "A la recherche du temps perdu," his memoir of doing research, or "recherche," as a temp at Purdue and of the mysterious Madeleine, who was one of the things he remembered, but don't let me give away the whole book, you should read it for yourselves — "Nous sommes qui nous sommes": we are what we are, and that is the heart and soul of Republicanism today.
It is like one of those old men's choirs who get together one Friday night a month to sing "On the Road to Mandalay" and "Stout-Hearted Men" and "Finlandia" and "Kathleen Mavourneen" and "The harp that once through Tara's hall / The sound of music shed, / Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls, / As if that soul were fled." Other choirs are ambitious to venture into African idioms and Ojibway chanting and Bulgarian nose flute music, but these old men gather in their old blue blazers and sing "Juanita" and, doggone it, I really, really love "Juanita," and it's about time I admitted this.
The old men's choirs were established by immigrants who had left their homeland, their families, their language, and come to live on a strange flat place called Minnesota, and they felt a great loneliness that could only be assuaged by standing shoulder to shoulder with other baritones and singing "Juanita." We are what we are.
And that's the Republican Party. Once a bulwark of All We Hold Dear, it's now a statistical subgroup. Somewhere in an Elks club, men gather at a banquet at which the speaker rips into those who would tear down the greatest health-care system in the world and introduce socialism to the land of the free. And then they all sing "This Is My Country" just like in my childhood days. I might go, if I have that night free.
© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.