Truth begins with facts. Facts are solid, like bricks. You build a house out of facts, the wolf won’t blow it down. But you drop a fact on your foot, it hurts.
I learned this as a boy, living near the Mississippi River in Minnesota when I discovered that where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio is actually larger than the Mississippi. So it’s the Mississippi that flows into the Ohio. The Ohio is the big show. This fact was shocking to me. I was proud of the river, spent hours on the shore, skipped stones on it, and I felt diminished by the new information. To go from Father of Waters to a mere tributary is a definite fall.
Facts have that tendency to bring us down a notch. I’d been 6’3” since I was in high school and now I’m a half-inch short of that. If people ask, I still say six-three, but it’s not true and I know it. I’m shrinking.
Even presidents must yield to facts. The horse-faced William Henry Harrison lasted only a month in the White House. He was a military hero, having defeated the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana, and he was anxious to show his intellectual acuity and so, having defeated Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election, Harrison composed a massive speech for his inauguration and stood and delivered it for two hours in a cold rain, a 68-year-old man, hatless, coatless, and then attended three inaugural balls. His wife had stayed home sick and wasn’t there to advise him. A couple weeks later, feeling very ill, he took to his bed. Pneumonia was the diagnosis, though it’s now believed he had a bacterial infection from drinking bad water, there being no sewers in Washington at the time. His doctor dosed him with opium and repeated enemas, and the treatment likely hastened his end.
He had written the speech himself and the first sentence gives you an idea of the style: “Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.”
In other words, “You elected me president and now I shall address you.”
As he lay in the White House, in an opioid stupor, with a hose up his rear end, W.H.H. might have dreamed of Tippecanoe when he rode around waving his sword at Tecumseh’s warriors, or maybe he revisited the debacle on the Capitol steps, the crowd standing glumly in the cold rain listening to 8,445 words of hogwash and horse feathers which, what with the rain and the lack of a megaphone, were incomprehensible to most onlookers, a faint murmurous croaking like a cricket in the weeds. In the space of one month, a hero became the butt of a joke — Longest Speech led to pneumonia which led to Shortest Term in Office.
Now it appears he died by drinking water that contained his own waste, the executive chamberpot having been emptied on ground near the White House well.
As the current occupant cuts his prime rib under the John Adams inscription on the dining room mantel (“May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof”), he seems impervious to reality. Like many real estate salesmen, the gentleman has a poetic imagination. Any man who comes away from a visit to Houston and says people there are happy is eating the wrong mushrooms. He has stood in a cold rain for seven months, pretending the sun is shining, winning the admiration of a shrinking bloc of barflies, bikers, and Baptists, and now he is drinking bad water, and eventually reality will catch up with him. It always does. He is headed for Harrisondom. W.H.H. had a large vision of westward expansion but he should’ve thought about sanitation. The Romans had built a massive sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, back in Jeremiah’s day and a system of aqueducts by the time Jesus was in the third grade. Wake up and smell the excrement.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality. His column is distributed by the Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News.