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From Garrison: Last Saturday at

June 9, 2004 |

From Garrison:

Last Saturday at the big Meadowbrook Music Park in New Hampshire, about ten minutes before airtime, during the pre-show warmup, I got the news that President Ronald Reagan had just died in Los Angeles. PHC goes on the air straight up on the hour, no NPR newscast, so I decided we should announce this death in some brief and fitting way and then offer a song ---- something ---- to give people a chance to reflect. No ponderous under-cooked essay, just a bow in Mr. Reagan’s direction in honor of the high office and his family’s contribution to our national life. The ON AIR light flashed, the band struck up “Tishomingo Blues” and I sang the theme and did the billboard and then said, “A great public man died today ----- President Ronald Reagan passed away in California at the age of 93.” There was an enormous intake of breath in the crowd, a big sad sigh that may not have been audible on the radio, in the midst of which came a big whoop from somebody sitting about eight rows back, which really rattled me, I must say, but I managed to go on and say a couple lines about how Mr. Reagan had befuddled us liberals by his sunny good nature and optimism and that his family was in our thoughts and then I sang (thinking of “lux aeterna” in the Catholic mass) a slow version of the chorus “Let your light shine” from an old gospel song, “Shine On Me,” and then “Where Could I Go But To The Lord?,” a sort of cheerful gospel song about meeting death, which came out in a New Orleans style, with our horn section.

Of course we’ve gotten a ream of mail from listeners, some saying “Thanks for recognizing President Reagan,” others saying, “Why didn’t you reprove those idiots in the audience who cheered at his death?” and still others saying, “How could you describe him as a great President? He wasn’t.” Some of the letters appear below.

I wish I’d said more about Mr. Reagan. I met him once in his office in Century City with my daughter Malene who was a film student at Columbia and who felt that the 1930s in Hollywood was a richer film decade than almost any other. When she asked him about Warner Brothers and mentioned some pictures, the old man bestowed his full charm on her, that sunniness of spirit that got him to the White House. All the derision and contempt that we Democrats shoveled in his path didn’t slow him down. I don’t think he was a great president but I’m not his judge. He surely was a great public man: he had tremendous sway and he changed things and made history. Anyone who goes into public life has to confront the legacy of Ronald Reagan. They will be arguing about him for the next hundred years.

The unfortunate person (or maybe there were two) who whooped at the news was innocent, I think ----- it was a reflexive whoop, a terrible gaffe but there was nothing mean or premeditated about it, and I’m sure the whooper felt bad enough on his own without me ragging on him from the stage. And it’s a free country. And to reprove him would have made him the center of things rather than Mr. Reagan.

Probably the old broadcaster whose death prompted this awkward moment might have enjoyed the whole thing ----- the old liberal host trying to think (while singing) of some appropriate words and the Shoe Band jumping in on the “Where Could I Go” and the whooper in the crowd, the whole mess. And then having to rewrite the catchup commercial to take out the references to death. It would’ve been less awkward to have ignored the news and plowed ahead with the show as planned. But this is radio. And for an old Democrat like me, confusion is almost second nature.

To PHC:
I take great offense at Garrison Keillor describing President Reagan as a "great" president. This is the president who brought us the Bush dynasty, Iran-Contra, and the devastating Reagan tax cuts. I've never heard anyone ever describe Reagan as a great or even a good president. The most forgiving thing that could be said about him was that he presided over this country while in the early stages of Alzheimers. He was asleep at the wheel. At worst, he was a con man, an actor, who went through the motions of being president, while representing the interests of the very same people we now see tearing this country apart.

Do we regret his passing and offer condolences to the family? Of course! But to call him a "great" president.

A listener in Massachusetts

Post to the Host:
I was listening to NPR when news broke of Ronald Reagan's death, and I was still listening when your show came on shortly thereafter. I want to thank you for speaking of the late president with dignity and respect, even though certain members of your audience apparently did not share your level of good breeding. In fact, the audible behavior of at least one audience member was disgusting, but you pressed on with your kind words. I wish more of us would refuse to let politics bring out the worst.

A listener in Texas

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I began listening to your June 5 show which you opened with the announcement that Ronald Reagan had died. I was stunned to hear some members of your audience cheer and whoop. I'm not sure in whom I'm more disappointed: Them for being incomprehensibly disrespectful and classless, or you for not saying a word about their reprehensible behavior.

I know you can't be held responsible for every outburst from your live audience, but this was so clearly beyond the bounds of human decency that it demanded some response. I'm disappointed that you chose not to do so in the first few minutes of your show. If you did so later, I missed it because I had long since turned my radio off in disgust.

A listener in Mississippi

Thanks for all your letters. Turning off your radio in disgust is a grand gesture and I do it all the time myself. A great tonic. And now we are off to the great Methodist tabernacle at Ocean Grove.

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