The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

Note to Tea Partiers: Wake up and Smell the Coffee

January 19, 2010

The tea partiers are enjoying their day in the sun, but coffee is the beverage preferred by most Americans, and we don't have time to gang up and holler and wave our arms — we prefer to sit quietly with coffee in hand and read a reliable newspaper and try to figure out what's going on in the world. Great heaps of dead bodies are moved by front-loaders and dumped, uncounted, unidentified, into open pits in a stricken country while people feast and walk treadmills on enormous cruise ships sailing a hundred miles off the coast en route to the Bahamas and Jamaica. That's the real world, not the paranoid hallucinations of the right.

The problem for Democrats right now is that nobody can explain health-care reform in plain English, 50 words or less. It's all too murky. The price of constructing this intricate web of compromises for the benefit of Republican senators (who then decided to quit the game and sit on their thumbs) is a bill with strange hair and ill-fitting clothes that you hesitate to bring home to Mother. Like all murky stuff, it is liable to strike people as dangerous or unreliable. And demagogues thrive in dim light.

The basic question is simple: Should health care be a basic right or is it a privilege for those who can afford it? Rush says it's a privilege — pay or die — and for his colonoscopy, they use a golden probe with a diamond tip, but most Americans agree that health care is basic, like education or decent roads or clean water. Holy Scripture would seem to point us in that direction. And yet the churches, so far as I can see, have chosen to stay aloof from this issue. Churches that feed the hungry and house the homeless dare not offend the conservatives in their midst by suggesting that we also tend the sick. And the opposition has beaten on garbage cans and whooped and yelled and alarmed the populace, which they're quite good at. These people look at a clear blue sky and see a conspiracy.

Arousing alarm is easy, teaching is tough. It takes patience and discipline to teach; any bozo can drop a book on the floor and make people jump. This is true even in Massachusetts. And in Nevada, where Senator Harry Reid is facing a tough challenge in the fall.

Reid is the gentlest and most patient soul in the U.S. Senate and his presence there in a colony of bull walruses is a tribute to Nevada. He's a soft-spoken man from hardscrabble roots in the mining town of Searchlight who possesses Western honesty and openness and a degree of modesty startling for a senator, and if he goes down to defeat to some big bass drum, the Republic will be the poorer for it.

Sometimes you despair of common sense when you see an empty helmet like former Mayor Giuliani strutting up to the podium, or hear the Rev. Robertson opine on the earthquake in Haiti, or the lunatic congressman from Michigan who intimated that the president is somehow responsible for the Fort Hood massacre — you just roll your eyes and hope these guys have friends who will take away the car keys.

Paranoia sells better in January than in November, however. And Sarah Palin was not elected vice president, and she is not in the West Wing advising President McCain on foreign policy. It didn't happen. She is investing her windfall profits from the book about how the Eastern media beat up on her, but we the people decided she was not vice presidential material. We don't choose our family doctor based on his ability to yodel, and we don't elect a woman vice president because she's perky.

And your high school civics teacher would not have given you a high mark for saying, as the Rev. Robertson did, that the earthquake in Haiti was God's judgment on voodoo. God has tolerated voodoo in Washington for years and not seen fit to shake the city yet. Priests and mojo men dance around the Capitol every day, waving skulls on sticks, scattering their magic powders, trying to stop progress with a hex, and God is content to observe them. So do we coffee drinkers. Government is in the hands of realists and in the end we shall prevail.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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