Paul Gruchow, Midwestern essayist, "The Necessity of Empty Places."
Jonis Agee, Midwestern novelist, Strange Angels, Sweet Eyes.
James Dickinson, Washington journalist, Home on the Range: A Century on the High Plains.
Larry Waiwode, Midwestern author of several novels and widely published in The New Yorker
Interviewed May 1, 1996.
FL: Can each of you briefly talk about how this kind of landscape influenced,
It was in Western Minnesota in a landscape that looks very much like this
landscape we're in here and was educated in a school that looks very much like
the one we're sitting in now. One of the things that I knew growing up in that
place and being educated in a room like this was that I hadn't grown up at the
center of anything, that I wasn't at any place in the world that really
mattered. And it took me a long time, and I was educated in a way that I think
people in these prairie towns are educated, to believe that if I was going to
amount to something, one day pretty soon I was going to get out of there, go
someplace where people mattered, things were big. And I did. As quickly as I
could. At the age of 18.
And it took me a long time once I had left that country behind, not to feel
apologetic about where I'd come from. I do think it's the case that those of
us who have grown up in places like this feel that we have something to atone
for. And that shows itself in that work ethic that is so much a part of our
culture and one sees in Robert Dole. He's still busy, I think, at the age of
72, atoning for every grown-up in Russell, Kansas. So he feels a very familiar
character to me.
I think that's a good point. I grew up in Nebraska and actually started in a
school just like this. It actually was a bigger school. It had two rooms.
And we were always told in grade school and high school, actually, that
Nebraska was the center of the country. As if that was some accomplishment.
But actually we always felt also that life was going on way outside of that
center. There wasn't any life at all in that center. And we also fled. I
fled to both coasts. Lived there. And felt that I had to really be successful
on either coast. But it was interesting, it wasn't until I came home to the
Midwest that I felt that I could really start my serious work. But I've
observed everybody in the Midwest, no matter where they live or work, are
working harder than anyone else it seems.
And I know when Easterners come back to the Midwest they're shocked that we
are at work at 8 a.m. Because on either coast you go to work at 9 or 10. But
we have to get that jump on people. And I see Dole as someone who is really
working hard. And will continue to work hard. He has to prove it. But you can't
prove it at home, you have to prove it somewhere else in the world.
I grew up in North Dakota in the high plains, very similar to this territory
here in Kansas. There's another side to all this or there was a side to it
that I experienced which was best communicated, I think, for me by another
writer, Richard Critchfield, who talked about taking his bicycle and bicycling
outside Pheasandon, North Dakota. Grasshoppers were flying out from under the
front tire, obviously it was a dry fall, and he said he got out there on the
plains where he could see the limitless sky, landscape flowing to the horizon
and he thought, "I can do anything." That was his response to that landscape.
And I think that's another side that certainly Bob Dole carries in him. He
was, grew up in that small town. He grew up in this landscape also. Something
we can't, shouldn't neglect to remember. So beneath that tremendous drive
that's in him is not just a sense of atoning but that vision of an endlessness
that you get here and you sometimes are filled with that feeling, "I can do
Well, I'm also from the high plains, Northwest Kansas, and I never felt any
sense of the need for atonement. I've always been proud of where I'm from. I
think partly that had to do with my maternal grandmother who had a very
Ptolemeic view of the universe. I think in her heart of hearts she sort of
thought that the universe and the sun revolved around Western Kansas because we
raised wheat, which was the staff of life. That we were doing essentially the
Lord's work. And she inculcated that in me. The other thing that I learned
growing up out there, particularly in the `30's in the Dust Bowl, was the hard
work ethic which the whole country has, but is very strong out here and also is
tempered by the realization and you have to work hard to survive, but it may
not always work for you. The Dust Bowl can come along and blow you away. Or a
hail storm, you can loose a crop in five minutes to a hail storm.
So there's a fatalism to the high plains I think that Senator Dole to a great
extent demonstrates. He works real hard, he's a workaholic, and I think he has
the idea that it still may not be enough and I think that attitude of his is
probably reinforced by his experience with his war wound which makes it even
more intense for him.
I think a sense of fatalism which I think very much is a part of this, but the
other thing that experience teaches you, the experience of laboring endlessly
against odds that probably will overwhelm you, certainly will overwhelm you at
some point or another, is a kind of resiliency. The expectation that from time
to time you will be defeated and that it won't matter in the long run. If you
pick yourself up and keep on going, that's the way life is.
Defeat is not fatal because it's not the end of the world because you know
you're going to suffer. I mean the state motto is "ad astra per aspera", "to
the stars through difficulty", and of course the sign on so many of those
wagons going back out from the 1890's was "in God we trusted, in Kansas we
busted." This is a hard country out here and you gotta be hard and tough to
There's still an immigrant mentality in the West. Failure is only seen as
another thing that you're going to go through and you're going to have to move,
as Dole's family did, over and over to find a place to be. But there's also
that drive to leave some mark on the land. And since the weather, the elements
are constantly washing away everything you're leaving as a mark, there's this
sense of persistence. You have to be patient, you have to constantly try to
leave something. And I see that in Dole's personality. That Dole wants to be
President partly because he wants to leave something. He has to make a mark.
And I think we all grow up in the Midwest thinking, "We have to make a mark,
somebody has to care that we were here."
I think it's part of the iconography of growing up here, isn't it? Because you
see the sky above, the earth below. That's essentially the two elements of
life and then man is introduced and stands above the horizon. When your father
walks toward you across this horizon, he's a looming giant. The influence that
he has with is face against the sky is enormous. And so you grow up feeling
man is after all rather insignificant, but then you walk out to the end of the
fence line and you see that limitless sky and you think, "yet there are no
And then I think that the person who grows up here on the plains too is
carrying within them an eternal language which essentially would be the old and
new testament. I mean whether you heard it in church or whether you heard it
from your grandparents, or whether your grandparents lived it out, there is
that standard by which all of your actions are measured. And it seems to me
that it's that kind of careful measuring, that careful coloring and shading of
choice that all Midwesterners carry in them. And they do have a kind of a
standard too. Not just a kind of a standard. I think it's almost an absolute
standard which at times adds to the sense of "I'll never measure up. I am
defeated here. Yet there's still hope because tomorrow this hail will melt and
there'll be another year."
FL: Paint a picture for us, for the people who have never been here, describe
what the 'there' is.
I think a good way to try to see this country is to attempt to see it the way
the native Americans first saw it. They were walking across what essentially
supported them. And it was always solid, green, endless. Hanging over that of
course was a further endlessness that they couldn't touch, they couldn't grasp,
they couldn't quite get a hold of, but it carried their vision out to the very
sunset, to the ends of the earth. And that was the sky. So those two
elements, blue and green, azure and autumnal, the heavens and the earth, were
above and below every step one took in life here. Then the immigrants came and
they walked across that same landscape and to them it was similar to the
endlessness of the oceans that they traveled across to get to this promised
land. Then they got here and Willa Cather has described so well the rippling
of the waves of grain to the horizon, felt to her like endless herds of buffalo
moving and galloping across this endless plain.
It is like an ocean. There's another thing about the first white immigrants,
their accounts of how disoriented so many of them were when they first entered
the Great Plains after crossing the Missouri River because they were accustomed
to hills and trees and the emptiness of space.
As a child when I would walk out across the plain, I would feel that limitless
sky above me, that heaven above me. I remember I composed a little song then,
"Oh Heavens Above Me, Oh Earth Beneath." And I would more or less chant that
as I walked. And then you hear the call from home. "It's time to eat, Larry."
Or you looked down and you noticed your boots need cleaning again because
you've become so involved with these two elements that you've walked through a
cow pie. So the elements return you to yourself very quickly if someone in
your family doesn't. And because that limitless sky is over you all the time
you feel it's weight too. So that when someone says, "Larry I saw what you
were doing out there in the pasture and you stepped in another cow pie." Boom.
You're down on your little old self again.
There's a paradox in the landscape. There's that enormous geography that does
either overwhelm you, or ennoble you in some way. But the paradox is that many
of the most wonderful and loveliest elements of that landscape are very, very
tiny. And in fact most of the life forms in the prairie are very close to the
earth, in the ground or under the earth. So you're almost compelled to drop to
your knees to see the best things about that landscape. So in the midst of
this grandeur this sense of everything that's tiny and detailed and fine. And
I suppose in some way the finicky attention to detail that's part of our
culture comes from that experience.
FL: Pick up on Bob Dole.
Well, it certainly seems to be part of the Dole method of working. The way in
which Dole has accomplished what he has accomplished is by paying attention to
those details. By seeing that one tiny matter after another is taken care of at
that Senate desk, with great efficiency. That's a kind of work habit that I
think comes instinctively out of this landscape.
There's another thing that happens with that paying attention. We learn to be
silent. We spend a great deal of our time being silent because we're
listening. I remember doing that spending hours in fields, just waiting and
waiting. And I'm not sure what I was waiting for. Once on a Sunday morning I
heard these incredible bells and I actually thought for a moment thought that
God had come and was sending bells, and then I realized they were probably from
a great distance, a church. I was very silent for a long time in my life.
And I think because we're listening to the insects and the night creatures and
the kind of chirping that's going on right now. And I think we don't come to
language that naturally. And I think that's something that we see in Dole a
lot too. Not only his finicky attention to detail, but also he's spent a great
deal of time being silent. Because he's listening to other forces.
There is that disorienting feeling on the plain that you were talking about,
Jim. I know that when people come here from the East, often set down on the
plains, so you take them from the airplane to the plains in a car and they're
set down here and they turn in a circle trying to find any point to focus on,
but there's just that endless plains. I believe that that had a tremendous
effect say on someone growing up here like Bob Dole and it has to do with his
silences too, I think. You're looking out there. You're trying to find you're
placement and you let your vision wander as far as it may and you find that,
"Ah there's that neighbor." And you come to know of that neighbor and that
neighbor's habit's intimately. And living out in this broad expanse too, you
come to realize that you're dependent on that neighbor and that neighbor's
dependent on you. And if there's a fire, if there's a storm, if there's an
accident on your farm, it's a matter of life and death. So you come to know
your neighbors intimately, they know you intimately. Probably more intimately
than you like to be known and that information passes back and forth somewhat
when you talk to one another and somewhat it doesn't because there are silences
in which you're measuring one another against the plain and the sky, and
against each other, but you also don't want to expose yourself too much, more
than is necessary or you could be again the object, I think, of either ridicule
or you could show that you're so vulnerable, you're so easy to get at in
certain ways, that that neighbor through the silences, especially of winter,
could just take you apart. Could undo you.
There's a dichotomy out here. The ideal of rugged individualism which there is
a great element of that in farming and ranching, and yet the need for communal,
mutual support. You can't survive out here by yourself. So there's always
that at work in the people out here and I think the feeling of the great wide
open spaces keeps you in perspective. I think you have the feeling of being
exposed all the time which is one reason for Midwest reserve. If you don't wear
your heart on your sleeve for what you're just saying. You have the idea the
people can look at you, that you're living in a fishbowl as it is. A fishbowl
that stretched all the way to the horizon.
And I think Dole demonstrates some of this dichotomy himself. On the one hand
he's a good, sturdy, run of the mill, Midwest conservative, balance the budget
kind of thing. On the other hand he has a concern for social programs. The
food stamps program particularly and the food programs that he worked out with
George McGovern, So he's got that dichotomy of individualism and yet the need
for communal, mutual support in him.
It's the same kind of demand that you have if you grow up in a place that's
very crowded. Again it's a paradox in that there's no place to hide. The skill
you develop as a human being is to learn how to hide within yourself. That's
the kind of privacy that's possible to attain in a landscape like this and I
think that explains the reticence of somebody like Bob Dole too. I mean
there's a physical dimension to this.
And what's of value is not speaking, but doing. Dole is a man of action. And
he really doesn't trust words I suspect, because people who babble too much,
who speak too much, are usually not valued. They're speaking, they're talking,
they're rambling, instead of doing something. We know those people. You don't
want to hire them to work on your farm.
One of the worst put downs you can get out here is, "He talks too much." This
is a laconic land.
And the best thing you can say about someone is, "He's a man of few words."
Which means he acts, he does something. And that's Dole I think.
I was struck by going to football and basketball games out here and how the
kids still don't showboat the way they do on television. It was just like when
I was in high school if you showed, betrayed the slightest emotion or
satisfaction over scoring a goal or making good tackle, "Showboat." "Put some
mustard on that hot dog." And everything. But that's an acculturation that
has held steady since I was a child.
It's kind of like if the organist in the church puts some fancy notes into the
hymn. That's showboating. It just is not done. If you have too much warble
in your voice, and you sing in the choir, that's showboating. Better not do
That becomes a bigger burden the more successful and the more wealthy you
become. That displaying wealth in this country is a real sin. And Dole has
been very uncomfortable about the fact that he is now wealthy. That's a
difficult issue for him. Doesn't like to talk about it.
Let's go back to this landscape without adjectives. And how that can shape
rhetoric and language.
One of the things that happens in this kind of flat landscape or the landscape
where the horizons are endless, if you say too much your words are simply blown
away by the wind. And you don't want to stand up too much because then you
really are ready to be knocked down. And I think the business with language
and that kind of sparseness of language and that lack of real enjoyment of
language that we find in the Midwest I think very often we don't enjoy talking.
We enjoy a little bit, but not a lot. And I think it's because we're really
afraid. I think we're afraid of draining out across that land.
Well, in a lot of urban areas and a lot of occupations, use of language and
communication is the way you make your living. It's the capital you work with.
You think of a salesman, particularly. But out here that isn't true. It's not
what you say, it's how you say it. It's the bushel per acre yield you get or
how many calves you lose at calving time. That's the measure. Words are not
the currency out here that they are in other areas.
Well also you're constantly dealing with life and death. And that has a way of
silencing language. It's the profundity of [it] that knocks you down. And boy,
everywhere you look your animals are living and dying in front of you and
you're responsible for them and you could kill your family depending on how
you deal with that.
I always like to tell the story when I published my first book I was living in
a small town in Southwestern Minnesota at the time. And I really thought that
the world was going to change the next morning. And I got up and the sun
seemed quite the same as it had always been and nothing seemed to have happened
in the world and this went on for several days. I was completely dismayed. But
finally on Sunday morning I went to the local drugstore and there a man I
didn't know, that I had never seen before in my life, came up to me and said,
"Say, aren't you the fella that wrote that book?" And I thought my moment has
come, fame has arrived. So I said, "Yes, yes indeed I did write that book."
And he said, "Well, I got it. And I read some of it." And then he turned
around and walked away.
They keep you in perspective. After I got out of the service I went through my
hometown of McDonald and I hadn't been there in over four years. And I was on
my way to graduate school and I thought that was a pretty good thing. And the
first thing that Glenn Pickett, who was my age, said to me was, "Well, haven't
seen you in a while." And he said it to indicate it had been a couple of
months maybe. And he says, "What are you doing? Looking for work?" And I
said, "No, no. Not looking for work." But he knew someone who was hiring just
in case I was.
When I published my novel, written in Nebraska about the Sand Hills I was out
there doing some work afterwards. And this man at the TV station came up and he
was one of the sound guys. And he said, "Do you live out here?" And I said,
"Well no, I own some land out here I bought. And I grew up out here." And he
said, "Well, who are your people?" As if he was gonna, that was important.
Then he said, "Well now, what kind of research did you do?" So we talked
about it. And he said, "Do you know a lot about birds?" And I said, "Well,
yeah. I checked it pretty carefully. Yeah." And he said, "Well do you think
barn swallows winter here?" I said, "Yes, I hope they do." And he said,
"Well, they don't." He had read the book and that was the one correction he
had to make. He of course was in the Nebraska State Audubon Society.
Well, I was introduced when I was 40 years old as, "Well, this is Bill
FL: Summarize all this and playing out with Dole.
There's something that people here say when they say he's a man of few words
and I'm not sure that it's necessarily negative. I think sometimes when they
say, "He's a man of few words," it's meant as a compliment. It's meant that
he's a deep thinker. He's a man of great feelings because if he let his words
out they would come out in such a torrent it would undo him. And I think that
is something that Dole carries in him. His actions show often that he cares
for people, yet he seems to find it impossible at certain moments to express
that in language, clearly. And I think it's part of the culture out here, but
it's part of his central personality that he never will be able to change. Yet
it does not mean that he's not the careful man who probably cut those cornrows
as straight as he could. Or thought about everybody in Russell, 'cause he knew
them all from working in the drug store and knew exactly where they were placed
in the community and what all their connections were. Obviously he knows that
because of the work he does in the Senate. But I think it's difficult for a
person who comes from this area to put that carefulness about actions, about
people, that concern about people, into language because it's something you do.
It's something that's in your heart. And to let it all out is, it's not
unmanly because we've all seen a father or a grandfather break down. And
that's terrifying because it's as if the sky is falling down too, part of the
world is coming apart. And I think any young child from this area who's
experiences that probably knows that sensation.
How can you more aptly, concisely sum this whole ethos up than Dole does with
his formulation that unlike President Clinton, he's a doer not a talker. I
mean that's in a half a dozen words, he sums it up right there. And there's
something else about the inability to express, to show emotion, or the
unwillingness to, is the, for the humor takes. The affectionate insulting
humor that he learned in Dawson's Drug Store that is a staple of my family and
my hometown. The worse we insult each other the indication is the more we care
about each other. Almost you can't just come out and say to someone, "I love
you." You do it through the humor.
The humor being a medium for expressing affection and caring is one thing.
Humor is also a defensive mechanism as we see in black humor, Jewish humor.
Clinton, Dole and Clinton share a cultural background. Clinton comes from the
South which lost a major war. Dole comes from a hard country which knows
failure day after day when luck goes bad. So it's a defensive mechanism. But
he also uses it as a tool and almost a weapon. And he has got such a fast
mind, a fast wit. And a great sense of timing. My favorite line of his is, you
know, he hates supply side economics as a good, solid, Midwest balance the
budget kind of conservative. And his line that he delivered at the Gridiron
Club one year was the good news and bad news joke about supply side
economists. The good news is that a bus load of supply side economists went
over the cliff into the ocean and they all were drowned. The bad news is that
there were three empty seats. I mean it just makes a parking lot out of the
whole thing. And Jack Kemp and the other supply siders are gasping like fish
out of water. And he is very effective. I think it has caused him some
negative backlash too, obviously. He's very quick.
That business of the sign of affection being the insult, I think is really
important to Midwestern might. And when you mentioned a moment ago, it's a way
you show people you love them. And I realize we weren't told we were loved
growing up, we were insulted. They were friendly insults. Well there were
negative insults too, obviously, pretty brutal ones. But I remember thinking
when I first heard people openly express affection for each other I thought
that was really strange and it made me a little awkward.
It's real trifle though. I'm not sure people from other regions necessarily
understand Dole's humor but we recognize it immediately. And I think you were
saying earlier that maybe it's Johnny Carson's appeal to, a good Nebraska boy.
It's also just a kind of frankness of speech that leads to this kind of
humor.....There's an acknowledgment that words have tremendous power to hurt
people. And if you live in a community where everybody is not only closely
dependent, but dependent for the rest of life, then you have to be very, very
careful about what you say to people so you don't ruin the prospects of the two
of you living together for the rest of your lives.
So there's an acknowledgment of that power in words there, and the function of
humor then is to give people more than one way to receive truth. You can take
it as a joke if you like. You can accept it on that level. Or you can take
the truth that's in it, but there's a kind of graciousness in delivering a
harsh truth with humor that does show I think some respect for words. It might
be part of what's going on there. And that of course, it's the case too, to be
able to laugh about misfortune when misfortune is an everyday part of your life
is one way to endure it. There really isn't a better way. And in every
beleaguered community anywhere there's always been what we call gallows humor.
There is a kind of gallows humor across the Midwest.
The more beleaguered the community, or people are, the richer the humor as a
result, as a coping mechanism.
FL: Paint a picture of how harsh this environment was to Dole growing up.
The 1930's, the Great Depression out here, was a disaster for the entire
country and for most of the world for that matter. But it was double
disastrous out here because it was compounded by the Dust Bowl which was almost
unbearable. The greatest environmental disaster in the nation's history.
Compounded by the fact that we brought it on ourselves with our farming
practices. But to have the economic disaster of the Depression, compounded by
this environmental catastrophe, is just overwhelming. I don't know how
anybody survived it.
There's something else that happens when you're in these Plains and the wind
blows endlessly, day after day after day. And I remember standing in the Sand
Hills and feeling as if I might go mad after a while because I couldn't hear
anything but the wind in my own ears and it was this terrible rushing sound. It
was as if I had put my head in a bowl of water and I couldn't get it out. And
I think that's one of the things that makes people so fragile in a sense. As
you were talking a moment ago I had a sense that our language is kept within
partly because we're very fragile in this world. We could even be blown away,
literally. And I think in the Dust Bowl it did happen, that people were blown
With the landscape itself, I think that one of the reasons that someone from
the city or someone from the East who arrives here turns in a circle it's
"Where will I hide?" too, if something should come up. Because once you
arrive on the land you realize you're at the mercy of the sky. Whether it's
snow, or hail or that wind. It's endless. Forty mile an hour wind we had for
three days once. Now that's a big blow. And indeed there comes a time in that
wind when you just grab hold of something to keep from going out of your mind.
You're almost screaming to yourself, stop, stop the wind. And I remember the
end of a three day blow like that and the wind all of a sudden stopped. I was
disoriented. I felt strange. You know the old joke, "the wind stopped blowing
and the chickens fall over."
And of course there are all the stories, I'm sure we've all heard them from our
grandparents about the woman who went to the chicken coop in the middle of the
blizzard and never got to the house. I mean that literally happened. So they
used to string up thin ropes to the chicken house and to the barn so they could
follow those ropes when they did chores during the morning and evening hours.
Otherwise when you step out the door it's just white. It's white out.
Well, in the Dust Bowl one of those dust storms would come up and it would go
black as midnight at 3 in the afternoon and the chickens would all head for
their roost because they thought it was night. I had an uncle on a tractor on
a farm that he'd lived on for 50 years. He got caught in one of those black
dust bowls and he didn't know where he was until he ran into the stock tank in
And another aspect of the landscape is just the extremity of its variations.
In fact the geographer John Borchard has pointed out that if you just measure
extremes of climate, the Northern Great Plains are a more severe landscape than
Siberia. In fact, there are greater extremes of weather on this landscape than
there are in Siberia. Which everybody thinks is the most...
It gets 110 in the summer and the cattle fall over dead even.
Hot in the summer and cold in the winter and the wind blows all the time in
You grow up with the stories, the cautionary tales of "Don't go out without
X,Y, and Z in the winter." Even now in the small newspapers they always print
these notes, "Now, don't forget. Load up your car with survival equipment.
This is what you need. Always tell people where you're going to be out in
Western Nebraska so we can track you." Because you can disappear. And I think
that sense of disappearing is what we're talking about. We're very fragile
FL: Try and connect that harshness..how it connects to Dole's personality.
There's a way in which harshness of this landscape can really affect
your personality. I think we see this in any small town. There are the bitter
people. And Dole has been referred to as having a bitter personality. He's
even said that there's a kind of bitterness inside him. And aside from his war
experience, I think this kind of harshness can lead you to be bitter with the
disappointment of staying in this kind of world. Of seeing the failure
constantly biting at you that way.
Well, I got a great quote from Professor Mark Lapping who was at Kansas State
and now at Rutgers, and who studied small towns all the years he was at Kansas
State and had been all over the state. He said the thing that strikes him about
the people of Kansas is more than anyplace else he's ever seen in the world,
these are people who have played by the rules and yet they feel they've been
screwed every time. That's his quote. And it's true. My great uncle Charlie
told me there are four things you couldn't trust, the railroads, the bankers,
the millers and the New York Yankees.
That has led in the politics in the Midwest to extremes that are rather like
the extremes in the weather, as a matter of fact. The Midwest has been the
center of a stolid. common sense conservatism that somebody like Dole claims to
represent, and on the other hand by the most radical agrarian populist politics
that the country's ever seen. Socialism really has been a part of the history
of this landscape too. There isn't much of a center in it's landscape or in
Any more than there is in it's landscape.
The Midwest populism in the 1890's was the most radical of any substantial
political movement in this country's history.
The non-partisan league in the early 1900's overtook the political scene in
Minnesota and North Dakota. And North Dakota still has its own bank, the only
state in the union that has its own state bank, still has it's own state mill,
its own state-owned elevator to work havoc against those millers in
Minneapolis, the big city guys. And I think that that's part of an attitude
here on the Plains. I think that's something that people here get bitter
about. You're growing the staff of life, you're growing the wheat that will go
into the bread to feed the nation. Forty percent of the wheat in every loaf of
bread comes from North Dakota, so I figure half a loaf of your bread comes from
my state, but there are those combined interests, those railroads, those
millers, those banks who keep at you and try to, they're not purposely trying
to foul your nest, but that's what happens it seems. And those who live here
who aren't resilient, become more and more embittered about the outside
There's one simple statistic that illustrates it. Wheat accounts for 5 cents
of the cost of a loaf of bread, be it $1.30 or $1.90 or whatever. Five cents
and the rest is all down the road, outside here.
And that's true for the beef growing, every kind of agriculture. Absolutely.
And I think connected to that bitterness is also that distrust, the kind of
fatalism and the sense that you're about to disappear.
I think it's important to emphasize that this sense of bitterness about how the
world works is not a pathology. It represents some reality. As a matter of
fact in the counties where I have my own farm in Southwestern Minnesota, a
rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota recently did a study about
income disparities and found that the disparity of incomes in my country, and
this would be typical of these rural places increasingly, disparity of income
in my place is greater than it is in Bangladesh, for example. We've really
created a kind of third world out here in this country and to feel bitter about
that is quite rational.
But there's another aspect that happens to the personality, I think, in these
regions and that is that you're not supposed to whine and complain. So the
only emotion you're allowed is a little bitterness and distressfullness and
then that humor which is the venting of, instead of whining and complaining. I
think instead of talking too much, if you whine and complain no one wants to
talk to you in any way.
It would be unbearable to whine and complain about that if you have to live
here to. That would just be socially unbearable.
FL: Talk about Dole's odd sense of class injury, coming from a supposedly
classless place like Russell.
We do venture this notion that we live in a classless society. I read that
somebody said about Russell, Kansas when Dole was growing up that there was
nobody in town who hadn't gone broke at least once. There was this sense in
which everybody who came to this landscape was a failure and everybody who
stayed on had been a failure at least once somewhere along the way.
But despite that, I think there is a very keen sense of class when you grow up
in this landscape, but it's a sense that all of us out here are a class as
distinct from those people, if your in Minnesota, in Minneapolis who have it
all. Or those people in New York who took it all away from us. So you can live
in a social situation which is in fact classless but still grow up with a very
strong sense of having been born on the wrong side of the tracks and being part
of a depressed minority.
FL: How did that affect Dole?
I think that's perfectly clear in both positive ways and negative ways in what
one knows about Dole. One of the positive in which it expresses itself is that
Dole is the man who rides around in the limousine, but in the front seat
feeling some sense of real connection with the driver. Dole is the man who
makes the connections with the people who cook the dinners in the hotels where
he goes. In fact he feels more comfortable with those people than he often
does with the crowds he works. And on the other side of that, a sense that
you've always got to be at it, and proving something, and doing something in
order to get justice.
Doesn't that kind of work out in that someone who lives in a society that we
see as classless, yet they're bound together in their own class tends to assume
a kind of moral superiority. We failed, we haven't quite made it, we've made
it through the drought, through the difficult times, through the bank busts and
all that. But we have lived the right kind of life. We have lived life
according to God's word, according to the moral nature of the universe and
therefore we are kind of a special class out here too. There is none quite like
us. And I think that Senator Dole doesn't articulate that as much. What I
admire about him, as much as he articulates, when he can articulate the
underdog position. I think he has a lot of strength. And I think he has a lot
of potential to do that. And occasionally in his humor, in his barbs, you see
him articulating that underdog position. Which is the position of the society
out here. The America without a voice. The moral majority is a title it was
given at one point.
His line, when he was arguing for his version of the food stamp program which
was enacted, was that you not require the people to buy in for $100 on the
grounds that they probably don't have $100 and in the course of the argument he
said to James Buckley, who was on the other side, he said, "Do you have a
provision in there for burial services for those that don't have $100 for food
stamps?" It was just a bombshell in that Senate debate.
That's the focus you get on these Plains. You get that focus it's a life or
death matter. You're raising food, other people live on it. They don't
understand that. They think they get it at the deli. But we know that it's
raised here. And if you can't supply that food, they'll die. And if you
aren't careful if you're working toward the supply of it, you'll die or your
FL: The war wound and the way that it both strengthened him and harmed
Well, as we know, history doesn't disclose it's alternatives so we know that
Dole's war wound had an enormous impact on his life and on his career. Of
course we don't know what track that would have taken had he not been wounded.
He might not have accomplished nearly as much fighting his way through the
adversity of that wound. We know, or we think we know how Franklin Roosevelt's
polio and his disability deepened him and broadened him and made him probably
the great man that he was. And he might well have remained what he was before
he got polio, which was a rich, East Coast dilettante who might never have been
more than an East Coast dilettante. Bob Dole might never have been as
successful as he is, if not for the tempering influence of that experience.
I think there's another way in which it works too because he comes from a land
where physical strength is your supreme value when you're in this kind of
world. And by being marked in that way were he was not longer strong, he had
something tremendous to overcome. I think it was more than emotional. It
directed his psyche in a profound way. I remember when my grandfather was in
his 70's, he actually decided, this is the last time he rode a horse, he got on
a young colt I was breaking. I have no idea why he was still riding horses,
the horse bucked him off and broke his back. He never told anyone that it broke
his back, it was weeks later, but he kept farming. That marked a point in his
life that really changed him and that need to be physically adept, to be
physically powerful is something that maybe Dole is constantly dealing with and
confronting. And that might even be some of the source of not only his
achievement but of a little bitterness there. That he was forced into this
other way of living. That he was somehow not as strong as the people around
This is purely speculation obviously. One can't know these things. But I'm
one of the things I'm curious about is whether that experience might not have
been formative in turning Dole toward public service. When you read about Dole
as a child, and particularly as a busy adolescent about Russell, with jobs
everywhere and making little profits off of selling things and you think about
his habits of mind now, the image that comes to mind is the image of the
My speculation would be that maybe without that accident Dole would have been a
billionaire instead of a candidate for President. But he might have been
turned toward public service by that.
It's interesting you say that because I happen to be writing the biography now
of an entrepreneur from the Plains who became a very successful businessman,
Harold Schaeffer. He was making $40 millions of dollars a year when his
business was really rolling. Eventually he gave all his money away, everything
that he made he gave away or put into rebuilding portions of North Dakota or
funding institutions. And a very interesting thing happened to Harold at one
point, which I don't want to talk about right now, but it was as if he suffered
a wound, you might say, but Harold, like many people and like Senator Dole who
grew up here, had moral fiber, moral character. And he also had faith, and I
think that that's something that we might have been overlooking here a little
bit. I think Bob Dole has a tremendous amount of faith. He looks forward to
something more than just the horizon. And the way that this Harold articulated
this at one point that I'm writing on in his biography, someone said to Harold,
"Do unto others," and he's a businessman, "Do unto others the way they do unto
you, right?" And Harold said, "No. You do the right thing to the person and
you hope that maybe they'll do the right thing to somebody else."
FL: Dole is a complicated person....how might that connect to the
The dark side of Dole is also the dark side of rural culture. It is that it's
a culture in many ways that functions on the basis of denial. There is denial
of a hundred kinds in life out here. Denial of the very likely possibility,
for one thing, that the very enterprise you are engaged in farming, or
whatever, isn't going to succeed this year. Denial as in the case I was
telling of my father, of physical illnesses as a reality. Denial of the nasty
aspects of social relationships that go on. There's a lot of pretending that
things haven't happened in order to go on in this intimate way in these small
communities, that can lead to glossing over real evils. And this also becomes,
I think, in many of us a personal characteristic too, the willingness, for
purposes of moving on, the willingness just to disregard certain obvious facts
about our lives. Probably not in healthy ways.
I think it forms a kind of dark hole in a personality like Dole's, to have
taken that pain and to have defended himself against what he experienced. And
I see this in rural communities that I live in and have grown up around.
There's a real sense of keeping one's evil hidden, of keeping one's darkness
hidden. And of operating under the cover of secrecy. I don't think people
know Dole and I don't think Dole is knowable ultimately. And maybe that should
terrify us. Maybe the person who won't let himself be known is someone from
whom we need to expect great danger. Because what is in there. I think it's
only when we get a little light on things that the community can explore it or
kind of cleanse it a little bit. But I think what's hidden in communities is
what's fascinating to people outside of these small communities. And it's all
I think when someone is unable, someone with obviously the spiritual and or
emotional depth that I think Senator Dole has, when someone of that sort
suffers that kind of wound, I'm going to use that word because so many people
have applied it to Ernest Hemingway. And I think there you have a similar sort
of person, who was laconic, who came from the Midwest, who had an ability to
express himself, he was an athlete, he was well loved by the local people.
Something happened over in the First World War and he never recovered from it
quite. His life got darker, and darker and darker until he reached the
curtains at the end.
We've talked about both Dole and Franklin Roosevelt suffering from disabilities
and they shared one thing in common which was that Roosevelt never gave up hope
that he would get use of his legs back. He swam and swam down in Hot Springs.
And of course the account of Dole's recuperation was his drive to get the use
of both arms back so that he could go to KU and play basketball for Fogg Allen.
Neither of them realized that but the difference their lives and temperaments
took are totally different.
With Dole we're talking about the dark side that comes out in him. Whereas
Roosevelt was a very gregarious, outgoing, really quite sunny personality. So
he went in a totally different direction that Senator Dole. Now whether it's a
matter of culture and upbringing, and you're talking about things that people
don't talk about, this is a very, very Victorian society out here. We don't
talk about sex, we don't talk about bodily functions, they might not exist for
all you ever hear of them. I think there's a greater repression in that sense
in this culture than in Roosevelt's patrician upbringing.
FL: Recovering from the wound, the discipline. The emotional scarring of that
I would have to imagine that this had to have felt in the deepest way, like a
fundamental and divine betrayal. I mean if you grow up in a culture that
encourages you to believe that it is through your own efforts that you make
what you can of life, and if you then suddenly find yourself in a circumstance
where no effort at all on the part of your own body or your own will makes the
slightest bit of difference. How that has to come with some profound sense of
having been betrayed. You wonder. It's a very sad thing in the end. You wonder
how many handicapped citizens in this country could have been ennobled by
Senator Dole's willingness to acknowledge that he himself had a handicap. I
mean he's done all this private work on behalf of handicapped people, so if he
had been able to stand up and say, "I'm handicapped." Or to let his arm once
drop to his side so that you could see that it was useless. What sort of
wonderful healing that could have had for many people. But obviously this
wound is so deep that simply now, fifty years later, he can't bring himself
even to acknowledge it.
I think that's one of the things you learn out here on the Plains is that if
you are unwilling or unable to admit your limitations or your handicaps you
are setting yourself and your family up for danger. So I'm sure that at
certain points, Mr. Dole must have felt that, "I've lived a right life. I've
done everything I should have done. And boom. Out of the skies, out of the
heavens above comes this lightening bolt." And I'm sure there must be a
bitterness about that. How do you explain that if I've lived a right life?
Well, whatever happens then you have to be able to admit, confess it, whatever
language you want to use to your neighbors around you because they're looking
at it. They know the ways in which you have been devastated. And I think the
inability to speak about that or openly communicate something about how that's
affected his life would suggest something very dark. And to be able to then
speak about it might open him up as a person.
Maybe he is not the most spiritual of human beings. Maybe if he is seeing this
as a curse, as a piece of divine retribution in some way or another, as a
betrayal from the divine, it is definitely something he cannot come to terms
with in a spiritual sense then. He has been betrayed on the most basic
fundamental level by God, by the divine. And in a sense he is a warrior who
refuses to give in. He is the rebel angel in a sense. And I think that
darkness, the power of that rebellion, lives.
I know that it's part of the strength of having that kind of wound is admitting
it and acknowledging it and that's a safety aspect of it that you were talking
about Larry. But I think quite the opposite, that this environment encourages
you not to discuss your wounds and pains. That this environment, if you have a
relative who has gone insane, or if you have someone who has committed a crime,
or someone who has other problems, you do not discuss this in public. There is
an enforced silence about wounding, about deficiency. And I think Dole has
become, there's a part of him that's extremely self-conscious and a part of him
that perhaps feels less human, less of a man because of that wound. And
because he's never been able to express that pain, it's never gone away, I
think that pain is very much alive inside of him and it's something that he's
battling and maybe protecting constantly. And he's afraid, I believe, that
someone will say something, that someone will acknowledge it. And I think this
is the one thing he doesn't joke about. And we know from his kind of interior
monologue that's going on that pokes itself out in that bitter humor and
sharpness that he's very well aware of everything that goes on around him and
inside him. But this is one area that no one can touch.
This is very much a John Wayne society out here. Really, John Wayne never
acknowledged weakness or demonstrated weakness and I've seen that in the
culture of the males I grew up with all my life and I think that's true of him
FL: And couldn't it carry out itself in the rest of your life?
I think what happens with the defending of pain with not letting it out is that
it begins to grow inside of you. And when you're protecting any part of
yourself internally, emotionally it spreads out. You're not sure what your
parameters are. It becomes something without boundaries so you're constantly
pulling back from everything and you're not sure when there's going to be an
incursion, an invasion. And I think you're constantly under siege.
And I see him as a personality under siege. And his relationships with other
people are obviously very defended and fearful and he does best by not
speaking. He does best by not extending himself. Then he's okay. Then no one
will challenge him. Then no one will point out that there's something
physically wrong with him. That he has suffered pain. And to acknowledge
pain in this kind of world is to acknowledge weakness, is to then make yourself
I think there are two other signs of this in what one can see of Dole's
personality. One is that humor, whatever it's great function in getting along
and coping with the world is always, always has an element of darkness. One
thing about Dole's ready wit is that you know that there's some kind of pain
behind that. That's where humor comes from, it comes from pain that's
unexpressed. And Doles workaholism I think is another classic symptom of
somebody that lives with a hole that needs to be filled. The way you deal with
that kind of pain is that you keep busy. You don't ever stop. That's one of
the classic ways in which we out here have dealt with the empty part of our
lives. We have just kept at it. Kept busy. Kept always, never had time then
to be reflective about the stuff that hurt. It's a good way to cope.
One of the things I've noticed about the South is that everyone expects sin.
There's a lot of forgiveness and a lot of expectation that you're guilty and
you're doing it and you're doing it all the time. Whatever it is. So there's a
kind of easiness with that.
That's a very fundamentalist, Calvinism and the fact that man is always sinning
and that Christian redemption is his means of battling it.
Although they have that tradition that kind of Calvinist tradition through the
Germans and certainly through the Scandinavians in the Midwest. But we ended
up with a different kind of spirituality.
Why is that -- that two different societies that greatly believe in grace, and
there's no one that believes in grace like the Lutheran community, why is it
that that community on the Plains is such a dark community, but the community
in the South that believes in grace is such a joyous community?
We've always believed on the Plains that we've come from that strand of
religion which believed in the perfectibility ultimately of the species. And
this is just long hard discouraging work.
And the rule is, it ain't going to happen in your lifetime!
That's why you need other generations. That's why they believe in families out
And that's very comforting just to give up hope and say, "Well, you know we're
all sinners." But we can't do that. We believe that if we work hard enough
and do the right things, tomorrow it will be better for our kids.
I think that's true of the Germanic strain out here, the Scandinavian strain.
There's a very dark view of religion. And it's Bergman who has that same view.
That the almighty really is almighty and he's going to catch up with you
someday for your sins. Because there isn't a real sense of grace, there isn't
a real sense of forgiveness. There's something unforgiving even about the
You can't hide. You're judgment is coming constantly. You're reminded of your
damnation and judgment all the time.
The sort of Protestant fundamentalism that is widespread in the South, the
Southern Baptists and more fundamental Methodists, is not a dark view because
you have it within yourself in one gesture to save yourself and turn the whole
thing around. I mean it's there and it's totally within your own power. So
there's not this dark view of determinism and an angry God milling over you.
The New Testament God is forgiving. There's a great emphasis on redemption.
And you really do see it in the black churches where a bad life can be turned
around in a twinkling.
I think there's another physical thing which is that the volume of light we
know has an enormous impact on how you feel about yourself. Being light starved
through the long Northern winters has it's influence on our personalities.
FL: Can you discuss Dole's Methodism?
Well, Methodism has the perfectibility of man built into it. That's the
theology of Methodism. Whereas Calvinism would say, "Your sins intolerable.
You're totally depraved. You'll sin all the time." However there is the grace
of God that can pull you out of all of that. But in a darker way. But in a
darker way you can perfect yourself. Though there are certain Methodists who
have sort of a free grace attitude, who seem to have a more joyful attitude
about life. Now I think anyone who has felt grace enter their life whether you
want to see it through a sovereign God or just enter through a person, knows
what grace means. The gracious touch, the gracious companion, the gracious
word spoken at the right time.
I have never thought of Bob Dole in terms of spirituality. I have always
considered him a very secular man.
That's why he seems like really someone of the land. He'd have to be something
else. He'd have to be transcendent in a way. Even when you read about him,
he's always had a project in mind. He's always got a plan. He's very attached
to the world. And what the world thinks of him is incredibly important.
FL: Describe Dole's religion.
I wouldn't describe that religion, which I grew up in too, so much as cool as I
would describe it as a religion, as you can see from the culture, that placed a
great deal of emphasis on discipline. Thus the sense that what one did on a
Sunday morning at a religious service was to go through a ritual, in the most
positive sense. The very discipline of saying over again the words that had
been said for a thousand years. And participating in that long way in the
history of the church was really what the communal part of the church was
about. And again there was the sense that this was not so much a joyous
occasion as one in which one served one's duty. It may well have been. I
don't know what the household was like, but in our household Saturday nights
were reserved to prepare mentally for the discipline of attending services on
Sunday mornings. So after the baths there was quiet and contemplation and no
whist on Saturday nights.
My grandmother was a staunch Methodist, as I believe Dole's mother was. She
actually, on Sunday she would not cook. We had lettuce sandwiches, which were
weird, and she hated the fact that my mother smoked. One did not smoke or
drink. Certainly Methodists are known for being very anti-alcohol. And they
were against cards, obviously. There were all those small wages of sin. But I
think it was a very reasonable religion too. I think it was a formal religion
and reasonable. I was always struck by how long the sermons were. And they
weren't ecstatic. They were trying to convince you to really consider the
weighty issues and moral rectitude. But not ecstatically they were not meant
to move your emotions. Emotions were not part of it. And I think that's a prime
difference. And I think that's what we see in Dole too. If we think of him as
a secular man I think it's because his emotions have not outwardly been
attached to any form of spirituality the way we could expect of, say, Clinton
who could go to different churches and openly demonstrate his virtues.
In Methodism too, the hallmark of Methodism is moderation in everything. Not
excess emotion, not excess spirituality, no excess anything. No smoking, no
drink, some people say no think, but it's moderation in everything. And I
think that's the kind of Methodism that Bob Dole probably grew up with.
Whereas in the Southern Baptist churches you're mentioning Jim, there is that
idea that if you can save someone, you've saved a soul and there's rejoicing.
And what brings on that salvation is an energetic sermon and the rolling of the
vocals. And the dynamic preaching that's going to save us all right there at
that moment. And then you have a big emotional catharsis that happens to the
man that's been sitting on the mourning bench for two weeks, or maybe just two
hours. Suddenly the local alcoholic is saved. And either that turns his life
around or he's back next Sunday to be saved again. This happens too. There's
more joy going on too.
Those Northern European religions too are quite explicitly and distinctly
intellectual. They are religions of the book. Of the Good Word in a way
that's not true of that Southern religious tradition.
And the physical is embarrassing. They don't focus on the crucifix. At Easter
yes, they do that business with the cross. But you don't pull that cross down
and talk about it and focus on the physical suffering of Christ. That's
embarrassing. You want him to put clothes on for God's sakes.
I remember an occasion in the church I grew up in, which is very much a part of
the tradition that Dole's a part of, where in the course of a Christmas sermon
our pastor said that Mary was pregnant and the endless debate that then rolled
on for months whether such a crude word as pregnant could properly be uttered
from the pulpit. You just couldn't do it.
Methodism was early behaviorism. It was supposed to make you behave better.
The joke about why Methodists never make love standing up? They're afraid
people will think they're dancing.
FL: Was there one particular lesson or memory you took from that church?
All I remember from Methodist upbringing was the damn good Samaritan. I just
wanted him to walk by that guy. I just prayed that he would walk by that guy
and stop ruining my life. He ruined my life. I had to be a good Samaritan. I
swear every week they taught us that in Sunday school and then you'd go up to
the big church and listen to the adult church and it was the same deal. Did
you find that?
Absolutely. The same parables.
The good Samaritan. And in a sense Dole's trying to be the good Samaritan. In
some odd fashion.
The social issues that he has abridged.
He's trying to hold all that other stuff in, cause it doesn't go with the good
It's an interesting outlet. Instead of overt spirituality it takes the form of
The Baptists don't talk about those good Samaritans though.
Oh yes. It's taken for granted that once you have witnessed for Christ and
taken him for your Savior, that you will live a Christ-like life and will live
like the Good Samaritan and you will do unto others as you would. You would
live by the Golden Rule, with generosity and also I might say, the asceticism,
that they ascribe to Christ-like behavior.
But the Baptists, don't they expect you to keep falling of the wagon in a
sense, then you get saved again. I always like that process. I always thought
it was a very forgiving religion.
You could do that. That comes under redemption. They don't expect it to become
a regular habit.