How Garrison Keillor United America
The host of A Prairie Home Companion used storytelling to bridge the gap between red and blue states.
On Saturday, Garrison Keillor will sign off as the host of A Prairie Home Companion for the final time, ending a four-decade run as the public radio show’s writer and voice. This fall, the program will return to its original format as a musical variety show, transitioning away from Keillor’s unique brand of radio sketch humor and his monologue of the news from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon where, he notes each week, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
A Prairie Home Companion is named after a cemetery in Minnesota, a nod to both the show’s Midwestern heritage and its wry humor. It’s telling that Keillor will wrap things at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, about as far from lutefisk and Norwegian bachelor farmers as anyone could be: The entire population of Anoka, Minnesota, Keillor’s hometown (or any of the several Midwestern towns that inspired Lake Woebegon), could comfortably fit in the 17,500-seat venue with room to spare.* So it’s hard not to feel like the fictional town is dying. Characters whom listeners have heard about over the radio for 42 years will give their final bow and shuffle off to a literary retirement home, never to be breathed to life again by the nasally baritone of America’s yarn-spinning grandfather, his delivery paced to the cadence of a rocking chair.
But with Keillor’s retirement, Americans lose something else, equally valuable and increasingly rare: a cultural figure fluent in the worldviews of both progressives and conservatives. Raised as a fundamentalist Christian in a small Midwestern town, Keillor crossed a vast ideological chasm during his career, becoming a stalwart political leftist without forgetting his small-town roots. Through his novels, his poetry, and his public-radio show, he’s served as a cultural liaison between red and blue states, interpreting each for the other, and offering a humorous, if not sympathetic, glance in both directions. His stories of life in rural America transport his listeners into a world where those of different beliefs and backgrounds exist in a surprisingly similar fashion to themselves.
For all its political implications, A Prairie Home Companion has always been about nostalgia, first and foremost. The director Robert Altman’s final film of the same name describes it as “a live radio variety show, the kind that died 50 years ago, but somebody forgot to tell them.” Keillor—who remained in his home state as he made the leap from college radio to a professional broadcasting career in the late-’60s—is unabashed about his origins, his beliefs about manners, morality, and what makes America a good place to be from. He sings patriotic ballads loudly and unironically.
While much of Keillor’s work draws on his family and childhood, the rest comes from his experience as a Minnesota writer seeking acceptance among New York’s literary elite. His life goals even as a young boy had much more to do with New York than Minnesota. Indeed, it was a 1973 New Yorker assignment about the Grand Ole Opry that planted the seed for A Prairie Home Companion, which debuted a year later. Keillor could have easily stayed in New York and pursued literary greatness there, and during his brief hiatus from the radio show in the 1980s he tried to do exactly that. But when his daughter was born in 1997, he elected to move back to Minnesota to be close to family.
Perhaps because of this sort of dual citizenship in two cultural spheres, Keillor has frequently veered far to the left of his conservative childhood on many political issues. In his 2004 memoir/manifesto/screed Homegrown Democrat, Keillor memorably described George W. Bush as an “Etch-a-Sketch president with a voice like a dial tone, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions in general, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk.”
On his radio show, Keillor generally leaves politics to mild satire of famous caricatures, typically offering equal time for barbs aimed at both parties. When Al Gore won a Nobel Prize in 2007, Keillor wrote a skit in which the younger Bush sparred with Gore over the number of votes the Nobel committee actually awarded him. Keillor also regularly spends time talking about the political divisions between normal folks, as with a 2012 “Catsup Advisory Board” ad, in which a bleeding-heart liberal and a bitter bootstrapping conservative quietly bickered over politics. When Keillor travels to red states, he writes skits and songs that highlight their points of local pride (only to gently rib them when he leaves). In a recent op-ed for the Houston Chronicle he noted admiringly,
When I stopped in Lubbock, I knew where I was. The city went 69 percent for Mitt Romney, 28 percent for Barack Obama. But I don't feel like an alien there. I admire old windmills, I’m curious about prairie dogs, and I’m a fan of Buddy Holly. To me, he does not fade away. And I feel enriched by biscuits and gravy.
The thing with politics, Keillor says, is that the “guy from Lubbock” has to live in this country, too. Such a compassionate view of one’s political opponents is rare. Left-leaning, politically active personalities are as ubiquitous in public radio as pledge drives, tote bags, and Hamilton aficionados. But Keillor has always stood apart with his bizarre blend of liberal tenacity and Midwestern aplomb.
During a brief phone conversation with Obama in May 2008, Keillor told him, “Senator, the thing that’s going to happen to you after you’re elected is that you are going to feel greater and greater empathy for George W. Bush.” Obama was purportedly taken aback, and eventually responded, “I think you’re right.” Keillor, who in his endorsement message said that Obama would end the “long sour period of the current occupant,” wanted to remind him, in their only conversation, that Bush might one day soon appear more human to him.
This is the true legacy of Keillor’s life in the public eye. Having crossed, Sherpa-like, the icy, sharp-sided crevasse that separates the political right and left, he’s been able to shade the views of each to the other with finesse and a pinch of humor. What an inveterate progressive or conservative may fail to comprehend is that the opposing group acts in a way that makes sense in the light of their particular brand of jaundiced glasses. Having seen through both, Keillor can point out the foibles of each. His decision to lionize rather than lambast his conservative roots, to create and animate sympathetic characters from a culture he no longer agrees with politically, remaining civil instead of sarcastic—these are traits worth celebrating.
If Keillor were purely a political figure with a facility for cutting turns of phrase, he likely wouldn’t have drawn in 3.5 million listeners a week. If he just had a musical radio variety show, not many would care. It’s the stories of Lake Wobegon that are the heart and soul of A Prairie Home Companion. Tom Keith, the show’s long-time sound-effects man, explained that people wait for “Garrison’s Lake Woebegon stories, and when he gets to that point, you can just feel the audience settle in, and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we came for.’”
It’s difficult to imagine the show surviving without Keillor and his commitment to storytelling. The beauty of Lake Wobegon is that it cuts beneath the veneer of red and blue, and exposes the good of American life. As much as politicians and pundits may square off and battle over electoral-college votes and Senate seats, A Prairie Home Companion argues, the things that actually make life worth living are the simple pleasures, like the memory of a childhood romp through the snow, or a long conversation with an old friend on Saturday night.
Keillor reminds his listeners that regardless of political leanings, the people in the “other” world continue to exist, providing a check on the idealization of one’s own view and demonization of the other. Women are strong and men are good looking the world over, and Lake Wobegon, for all its faults, reminds us that it is unlikely for one camp to hold all the answers to life’s persistent questions.
* This article originally implied that Anoka, Minnesota, was the sole inspiration for Lake Woebegon. We regret the error.