Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.
The word “loser” is spoken with such contempt these days, a man might like to forget the losses in his own life that taught him something about good judgment. The money he invested in that casino in Atlantic City that went bust, the university course he enrolled in that promised to teach him the secrets of success but instead he wound up unemployed and 40 grand in debt, the candidate whose hat he wore who turned out to be tone-deaf and deluded — dumb, dumb, dumb, and yet his loved ones did not chortle and point and do the nyaa-nyaa. They put an arm around him and said, “This is how we learn.” And it is.
Dumb things I’ve done: too many to mention. Quit a job out of pique. Twice. Got mad at a newspaper reporter. Had a fit of road rage, forgetting that I was holding my phone with a colleague on the line. Tried to train a dog by yelling at him. The list goes on. And what you discover from doing dumb things is this: You have friends. You’re in a circle. You’re covered, and that is more valuable than marble walls and golden faucets.
Walter Mondale took a historic shellacking in 1984 and made his way back to Minnesota, where he is loved and honored, one of our own. Wherever he goes, people smile at him. He is blessed. So am I. I walk around St. Paul, and people smile at me because they’ve heard about my speech to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society in which I analyzed the themes and motifs in “For Whom the Sun Rises,” forgetting that it’s actually “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and it was written by Hemingway. But this is how you find out who your friends are.
I gave a speech at my friend Studs Terkel’s 90th birthday party, told the story of his life though he had heard most of it before, and said that the old man’s graduate school was the lobby of his mother’s low-rent hotel near Bughouse Square in Chicago where he listened to the clientele, the unemployed railroadmen and alcoholic typesetters and old radicals and young couples with no luggage who inquired about the hourly rate, most of them low on cash, but with attitude. He got a law degree, became an actor, then got into TV. It was 1949. He had his own show on NBC and was doing well until an American Legion guy accused him of being a commie and the show was canceled, which saved Studs from premature success and led to his long, happy career in radio. He respected people who had lost; he could see the possibilities in defeat.
Whenever I visited Chicago to see Studs, I was surrounded by his friends, who then, ex officio, became my friends. He lived to be 96, and he died with a Johnnie Walker in one hand and a cigar in the other. I went to see him the summer before he flew the coop, and he was full of prune juice, reminiscing about his days as a gangster on soap operas, worried about whether his hero, Barack Obama, would be elected. He wanted to live long enough to see it but he didn’t want to if it wasn’t going to happen. I convinced him that Obama was a sure bet. Finally, he said, “Ninety-six is long enough. I had my share.” He died four days before Election Day 2008. He was born a month after the Titanic went down, and he went out as Obama was coming in. What a life.
I had two uncles and an aunt who went down young from heart attacks because they didn’t live long enough to enjoy the advances in cardiac surgery that would’ve extended their lives, and here I am, older now than my elders and still cruising along, my heart set on reaching 96, simply to enjoy the view and maybe take up whiskey and cigars again. We made our mistakes back in the 20th century, Lord knows, but we never nominated a man for president who brags about not reading. Calvin Coolidge had his limits. Warren G. Harding spent more time on his hair than strictly necessary. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a piece of work. But all of them read books. When I envision a Trump Presidential Library, I see enormous chandeliers and gold carpet and a thousand slot machines. God help us. I mean it. We’re in trouble down here.