National Press Club

Garrison Keillor proposes 15 things to make America a better place

May 27, 2015 | By John M. Rosenberg |

Garrison Keillor speaks at the Press Club.

Garrison Keillor speaks at the Press Club.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Humorist and best-selling author Garrison Keillor, making his first appearance at the Club since 1994, delivered a speech titled “15 things that need to change right away.” In prefacing the speech, Keillor expressed regret that in his 40 years of hosting the “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program listeners had come away remembering nothing in particular that he had said.

In his May 22 luncheon address, the 72-year-old Minnesota native said he wanted to present the Club audience with specific messages, whereby a level of discussion might ensue.

The syndicated radio show host touched upon everything from the burning of coal, maritime disputes in the Far East, to the drought in California. Keillor said the drought was a reminder that the Golden State was largely a desert and likened the presence of its year-around green lawns to that of using giant space heaters to warm up snow-covered backyards in the dead of the Minnesota winter.

One suggestion made by Keillor involved changing the Washington tradition of lettered street names, saying that the renaming of these streets after philosophers would “give the city some tone.”

Another proposed transformation centered on the removal of barricades set up outside of public places in the wake of 9/11. He called such barriers little more than symbolic in nature.

A lifelong political activist, Keillor said he believes the custom of dividing desks along party lines within the U.S. House and Senate chambers should be abolished. “Let’s mix Democrats and Republicans within the chambers so that members don’t have to reach across the aisle, but instead turn to the person next to them,” he said.

Keillor said radio and television frequencies are a public resource and the Federal Communications Commission should lease, rather than sell them. In addition, given that the broadcast spectrum is public property, Keillor said radio and television stations should be required to provide commercial time, without charge, to political candidates.

Among the operative principles behind Keillor’s list was to name things that could be done now. For this reason certain challenges, such as simplifying the U.S. tax code, did not appear. “It would put too many accountants out of work, and it’s so hard to retrain them,” he said,

In extolling journalism’s ability to change people’s behavior, Keillor cited the recent example of a New York Times expose about manicurists being exposed to dangerous chemicals and forced into sharing a portion of their tips with salon owners as well as working below the minimum wage. The resulting outcry led to an ambitious campaign to halt these practices and to educate manicurists on their legal rights.

Keillor termed the expose a “throwback” to days of muckraker Upton Sinclair and challenged journalists to undertake more investigative reporting.

He ended by saying, “Let’s do it again.”