The news over the last week has featured the departure of three important men, each of whom may be leaving their long roles as national resources: Brian Williams of NBC News, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, and Garrison Keillor, of NPR’s flagship program, Prairie Home Companion.
Stewart’s exit is clear; he announced it unequivocally a couple nights ago on the show. Williams’ and Keillor’s leavings are more ambiguous. Williams is presently “suspended” after lying in his description of an incident in Iraq in 2004 in which he falsely claimed that his helicopter was struck by enemy gunfire. And there may be more to come. Prairie Home Companion, last Saturday night—for reasons unknown, at least to me, had a guest host, perhaps portentous of things to come.
I write about these guys because they present on a continuum of masculinity from large-egoed celebrity to big-hearted preacher. Williams presents brightness, charisma, and, unfortunately, grandiosity that got the better of him in his job of truth-telling. Stewart and Keillor, on the other hand, have stayed wedded to their mission of truth-telling unrivaled in contemporary media.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Brian Williams. I have watched NBC news regularly because I enjoy his incisiveness, wit, and clarity. But I see Keillor and Stewart as adopting roles that go far beyond smarts and charisma. In their own and very different ways, these two men are moralists, deeply concerned about the core values of our nation, and the loss of them in this age of superficiality, self-interest, and cynicism. Keillor and Stewart do many things on their shows, but above all, they decry the loss of homegrown honor and integrity, and they promote healthy values.They’re quite different men, but they are kin in their missions.
Keillor, a mild-mannered preacher and story-teller who rivals Mark Twain, is a promoter of the great true values of America: simplicity, respect, honesty, and community. He loves tomatoes fresh off the vine; houses with great wide porches; old-fashioned church potlucks with the old standard casserole: tuna fish and noodles floating in a sea of cream of mushroom soup.
Stewart, on the other hand, is a crier for truth. Sharp and clever, full of grins and grimaces, he cuts through the hypocrisy of politicians and world leaders to take off the emperor’s clothes. He’s loudly indignant at lying, posturing, and selfishness. The accolades for Stewart (for example, on Charlie Rose) on the day after the announcement of his departure were highly complimentary, but they unfortunately seemed to miss his essence. They spoke of his telling commentary on the news but ignored his nature: like Keillor, he’s a missionary for respect and compassion.
I’m willing to forgive Brian Williams, and I’ll miss him if he doesn’t come back to do the news. He’s the smart-aleck kid, with a little of the bully in him, who gets the prettiest girl. He’s cool but probably thinks he’s cooler than he really is, a pretty mascupathic guy whose egotistical brain seems to run too much of his life. Stewart and Keillor, at the other end of the continuum, are the men with hearts who, day after day, week after week, evidence their deep care for and concern about our country; they want to make the world a better place.
Williams is like the fun neighbor, the guy next door who you’ll miss if he moves away because he always had that winning smile, and you enjoyed the banter when you were out watering your lawns or shoveling snow. Keillor and Stewart are like your ministers: for years you sat in the same pew, and time after time you listened with real attentiveness, sometimes laughing, other times jolted into self-examination. But, like holy men, these guys have been guides to your spiritual life: you, all of us, have been chastened and purified by their speaking the truth. When they end their tenures on radio and TV, for some time you’ll feel at sea, your soul a little smaller for their leaving.