Getting The President To Laugh


The kind of readers who visit this website may have noticed that one of our heroes, Wendell Berry, made President Obama laugh right out loud the other day. Wendell recently received a National Humanities Medal in Washington, and when the President leaned forward to drape the award over Wendell’s shoulders, the two exchanged whispers and the President broke out in a huge grin. It is a wonderful picture and appeared in many newspapers. To be able to get the president of the United States to laugh like that in front of the whole world in these awful times… well, that’s a real accomplishment. I am not surprised, however. If you know Wendell, he can make very funny remarks at the most unexpected times. I asked him what he whispered to the president but he’s not talking. Says he can’t remember.

Two other writers who received a National Humanities Medal this year were Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth. Jacques Barzun, the historian, got one too. This is top notch stuff, and I don’t know anyone who deserves the recognition more than Wendell. He is the hardest worker I know, traveling and giving speeches incessantly. He’s written 40 books so far and still manages to do a little farming with the help and support of his equally amazing wife, Tanya, and his son Den and daughter Mary and their families. His message, now and always, is that society is ignoring and abandoning ecological and economic common sense and we will pay for it. Is he right? Look around you.

All of us who read Wendell and cheer him on should feel more than a little hopeful over the honor he has received. In a way it means that what we all stand for and stump for is being recognized. Our “side,” so long a minority, so long a few voices crying in the desert, is finally being heard at the highest levels. Wendell is one of our finest writers and poets, but oh how hard it has been for an urban-centered art world to admit him into its circle. He is also one of our clearest thinkers on economics and ecology, but establishment defenders of high finance have a very hard time giving him any credit. After the banking debacle, they aren’t quite so uppity.

After his meeting with President Obama, Wendell was invited before the Kentucky State Legislature to be honored officially for his contributions to society and to Kentucky. You have to understand how momentous that was. Kentucky is more or less ruled by the coal industry whose foremost critic has been Wendell Berry. Even the governor, who just a few weeks earlier refused to talk to Wendell about the way nature and human communities are being ruined by mountaintop removal for coal, voiced his admiration and respect— but did not mention the previous meeting in his office nor Wendell’s long letter to him afterwards.

If Wendell can make a pessimist like myself a little hopeful, then there is hope. But do you know what cheered me most about all this? After we had gabbed on the phone the other night, Wendell signed off by saying: “Well, I better quit– I still have to go the barn and check on the sheep. We’re into lambing now.”