You've probably never heard of Larry Ragan, but he was probably the most influential writer I ever read—as I once explained to a mystified Garrison Keillor.
Larry was my first boss. He founded and wrote a now-defunct newsletter called The Ragan Report and toiled in the dreary obscurity of what was once known as the "public relations trade press," now also defunct.
But Larry was incapable of writing a dull sentence, on any subject, for any publication. And so I remember much of what he wrote, some of it word for word. He once poked fun at a pretentious academic study that purported to define "excellence in public relations" with a column headlined, "Does selling scads of brassieres constitute 'excellent public relations'?" You really didn't need to read the rest. In 1974, he explained that good and bad publicity are usually closely related to good and bad behavior. Of Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Nixon, he wrote: "Boys, you weren't good. Bad PR."
No piece of Larry's writing educated me more permanently about writing and thinking than a prayer that wrote in a little Catholic newsletter, sometime in the 1970s.
After savoring that prayer for a couple of decades, I published it here, just before Christmas 2010, and dedicated it to "Writing Boots readers, with whom I sometimes disagree and occasionally bicker. But I know it's often because of a simple difference in perspective and nothing more."
"There are the insiders and the outsiders," Larry wrote. "Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.
The outsiders raise hell. They demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.
The insiders? Often dull. The insiders speak a different language: they know the tax tables, the zoning variations, the assessment equalizers, the square-foot cost to educate the kids. You'll find them on the school board, city government, on the village board. Ordinarily not word people, they have mastered the art of the platitude.
Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don't seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders. Surely it was an outsider who first proposed the shocking idea that the generic "he" is a sexist word. Dorothy Kay, who in the 1950s stopped Manhattan traffic to protest atom bomb tests, was an outsider.
Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better momnets, to know how to be one. But I'm torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world's complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn't speak so clearly to them.
Sometimes you've got to feel sorry for the insiders. When they win, few know of their victory. When they go wrong, their mistakes are branded as evil. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, "Things aren't that simple."
The world is filled with people who like to feel they are right. Insiders are not always certain they are right. They are unhappy when they must resist the simplicities of popular sloganeering. So when we tip our hats to outsiders, as so often we must, let's not do so with such vigor that we fail to give two cheers to the insider.
In 2010, I wrote: "To the insiders, outsiders, the hotshots and those who fear they are drudges, the helpers and helped, the critics and critiqued, the afflicting and afflicted, the annoying and annoyed, the middle-of-the-roaders and outlyers, the curmudgeonly and the curmudgeonees among Writing Boots readers: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and here's to another year of good conversation—of all kinds."
The perfect, balanced, generous verity of Larry's little prayer has comforted me for 25 years since I first read it.
But this year for the very first time I wonder: It still true?
And if it isn't, what in America's name is?