16 January 2018
This would have been 1971, when I was nineteen and living on my own in northern California. I didn’t have the money to purchase the book. (I was working as a live-in babysitter.) If I couldn’t walk to my destination, I hitchhiked. (Once, in Marin County, I got a lift from none other than Jerry Garcia.)
One Saturday, I hitchhiked to Sausalito for the express purpose of reading Being There, a 140-page novella that someone must have told me about.
I recall simply standing at the shelf and turning page after page. No one objected or complained. (In those days, bookstores didn’t provide chairs for customers.) When I reached the last page, I returned the book to the shelf and left the store, task completed.
By 1979, when the movie version starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine premiered, I was newly married and living in Austin. Teddy and I were paying customers at the film, a brilliant adaptation of this prescient book.
The protagonist of Being There is Chauncey Gardener, a simpleton who stumbles out of the garden and into the White House. He can’t read, but he is an avid television viewer. His vocabulary is limited, and his truisms, culled from television and his work as a gardener, are heard by the public as nuggets of wisdom.
Those who are astonished by the current state of affairs in Washington will find this story illuminating. Chauncey Gardener is something of an empty vessel, ready to be remade in the image of whomever he meets. Because he doesn’t have facts or explanations, he simply repeats the few things he’s learned from his work as a gardener: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.”
Listening to Trump, I often think of Chauncey Gardener.