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.”


Gene, Thank you for this! A deft post about a man who is, indeed, a hero—to writers and farmers alike. I have enjoyed and profited from so much of his writing, and Jayber Crow remains one of my favorite novels of all time.

I was a bit nervous about reading this Wendell Berry fellow, until I saw the dedication in the front of the book to Gene Logsdon. Always a good sign.

I think we should have a contest on what Wendell said to Obama… though I REALLY would like to know what he said to make him laugh so heartily…

Now if you could just get Wendell Berry to expand his influence by getting a Facebook account…

Wendell Berry is a great inspiration to us city folk, too. (As are you, Gene.)

I agree with all of the above. The world is a better place with Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon in it. Maybe Mr. Berry told President Obama that he would rather be watching his ewes lamb than where he was at the time. At least he could understand what the ewe was doing.

Whenever I see award ceremonies, I think of the last half hour of the Wizard of Oz, where the wizard is presenting the lion, tin woodman, and scarecrow with things they thought they were missing, but really already had. Usually, the presenter of the award is benefitting more than the recipient. Hell, they gave the Medal of Freedom to L. Paul Bremer and George Tenet. Go figure.

I’ve always considered Wendell Berry to be my true agrarian “spiritual father”.

His influence upon my life’s work has been profound, intimate and inestimable.
But then Gene, so has yours.

The fact is the both you and Wendell have helped in some part to make me the woman I am and a much better farmer. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

You and Wendell may not live long enough to see the complete fruition or harvest of your work, but please know that you both have permanently changed the course of American agriculture and rural family and community life for the better.
My most sincere thanks to you both.

I guess a national humanities medal means a lot more than a Nobel peace prize!
Also, didn’t George W. give that medal to Andrew Wyeth? I guess you’re next, Gene 🙂

This awarding of Wendell Berry is fantastic…it is exactly what is so exciting about sustainable agriculture…it transcends politics and brings all kinds of folks to the table…literally.
As a “politcal conservative” I say: BRAVO to President Obama.

Of course, Wendell Berry is precisely so effective because of those last lines of yours about him running off to check on the sheep. He lives what he preaches…he’s in the trenches.
We all have to get in the trenches!

Hurrah for Wendell! He is certainly deserving of the honor and it’s about damn time. It is the constant interweaving of the land, lambing and literature that have allowed him to speak with such honesty and foresight. We need thousands more like him!

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