Statement from Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, Nov. 30: Readers are entitled to a basic level of transparency from the columnists they read in The Washington Post. Garrison Keillor failed to meet that standard this week. Knowing he was under investigation for his workplace behavior, he should not have written a column on that subject; or, if he was going to write, he should have told his editors and readers that he was under investigation. Instead, he wrote a column defending Sen. Al Franken without any disclosure of his own situation.
Of course, we also are very troubled by Minnesota Public Radio’s report that Keillor engaged in inappropriate behavior in the workplace, a charge that he denies. MPR, which terminated its relationship with Keillor for that behavior, has given us no information beyond the statement they made public.
We have admired many of the columns Keillor has written on a weekly basis for the Washington Post syndicate and news service over the past 18 months, but we do not intend to publish his columns in the future.
My friend Pastor B.D. Christensen said something so good Sunday morning that I woke up and wrote it down: “[something something] . . . about making peace with the mistakes of the past [blah blah blah] and learning from them. It’s slippery ground, in general, to judge past actions by present standards and with a benefit of hindsight that is, morally, highly questionable.”
And immediately I thought about the Minneapolis Park Board voting to rename Lake Calhoun as Lake Bde Maka Ska because the man for whom it was named back in the early 1820s was a slavery enthusiast from South Carolina and an author of the Indian Removal Act and also, judging from his pictures, ugly as a mud fence.
Renaming is a slippery business. I knew a Cheryl back in 1969 who became Saffron and it didn’t work out and a few years later she resumed her Cherylness. The Triborough Bridge in New York City was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, but if you were to ask directions to that bridge, you might wind up in Pennsylvania, a state named for the common pencil. This will happen with Lake Bde Maka Ska. The name will appear on signage, but when people look at that body of water, they will think “Calhoun.” The effect of this on the slave trade in Minneapolis will be slight.
On the other hand, Jean-Louis Kerouac did well to rename himself Jack. A Jean-Louis would be unlikely to write “On the Road” but a Jack Kerouac — the road was right up his alley. In 1963, Idlewild Airport on Long Island was renamed JFK, which stuck, thanks to the clumsiness of “Idlewild” — no large airport is idle, and airline passengers do not care to think of aviation in terms of wildness — and besides that, “JFK” rhymes. Fine and good. And back in the 18th century, Francois-Marie Arouet did a smart thing by taking the pen name Voltaire.
That name worked out well for Francois-Marie — it lent an electricity to his work. For example, his statement: “Any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” We might not believe that coming from a Francois-Marie. And how considerate of him to say it in English rather than French.
The greatest absurdity of our time is You Know Whom, which goes without saying but I will anyway. What his election showed is that a considerable number of people, in order to demonstrate their frustration with the world as it is, are willing to drive their car, with their children in the back seat, over a cliff, smash the radiator, bust an axle and walk away feeling good about themselves. No other president in modern times has been held in contempt by a preponderance of people from the moment he said, “So help me, God.” The playboy blather, the smirk of privilege, the stunning contempt for factual truth — how can the country come together when the president has nothing in common with 98 percent of the rest of us?
And then there is Sen. Al Franken. He did USO tours overseas when he was in the comedy biz. He did it from deep in his heart, out of patriotism, and the show he did was broad comedy of a sort that goes back to the Middle Ages. Shakespeare used those jokes now and then, and so did Bob Hope and Joey Heatherton when they entertained the troops. If you thought that Al stood outdoors at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and told stories about small-town life in the Midwest, you were wrong. On the flight home, in a spirit of low comedy, Al ogled Miss Tweeden and pretended to grab her and a picture was taken. Eleven years later, a talk show host in LA, she goes public, and there is talk of resignation. This is pure absurdity, and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness. No kidding.
Franken should change his name to Newman and put the USO debacle behind him and then we’ll change frankincense to Febreze. Remove the slaveholder Washington from our maps, replacing him with Wampanoag, and replace Jefferson, who slept with Sally Hemings — consensual? I doubt it — with Powhatan, and what about the FDR Drive in New York, named for a man who was unfaithful to his wife? Let’s call it RFD and let it go at that.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.