On State Street, that great street, I just wanna say,
They do things they don't do on Broadway.
--"Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)," 1922
If you asked who Pat Sajak is, the immediate answer would be: game-show host. Specifically on "Wheel of Fortune," the afternoon filler for television stations all over the country. Who knew he embodied so much more, like the distinctive combination of intellectualism and patriotism you'll find in Chicagoans from Saul Bellow to Joseph Epstein, who may be the best essayist writing in the American language today.
How sum up the spirit of the place? You could do worse than cite the opening lines of Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March":
"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles...."
That's Chicago and that's the Chicagoan in smooth, always composed Pat Sajak coming out. He still loves White Castle sliders -- he says the secret is to get them into your mouth before the grease congeals -- and knows the difference between pierogi and knishes. Both may be dumplings, but each kind of comfort food offers its own distinctive comfort, memories, associations ... as different as the Cubs and White Sox, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field, Maxwell Street in the old days and Chinatown now.
Our innocuous game-show host turns out to come from the same Polish-American background as Mike Royko, whose father was a bartender. Pat Sajak's manhandled cargo on the loading docks for 30 years. To quote the long-time emcee of "Wheel of Fortune" -- "I get a laugh," he says, "when people say to me, 'How do you do this for 30 years?' This is easy. Ask my father how he did that for 30 years."
Pat Sajak is no more shy than Augie March when it comes to proclaiming he's an American and proud of it. Even when it's the intellectual fashion to reduce American history to just oppression at home and aggression abroad. He knows, he's lived, in the real America. And he'll tell you about it, brother:
"The Wright brothers, what was it, 1903, they got about 20 feet in the air and went about 180 feet. Sixty-six years later we put a man on the moon and brought him back. Oh, and in the meantime we won two world wars and fought a Great Depression."
Not bad for a still young republic that remains, in Mr. Lincoln's phrase, the last best hope of the world. And bears no resemblance to the caricature of it some of our intellectuals paint. Dissent is fine -- it's another great American tradition -- but reading nothing but dissent robs us of our real past, and hope for our real future:
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent?
"We Too Had Known Golden Hours"
Pat Sajak now has gone on to become a trustee of Hillsdale College -- that's right, the one that accepts no federal grants because its leaders understand that no government money comes without government strings. And as long as he was going to be a college trustee, he might as well get a college education. A real one, a liberal education that includes the classics, and consists of more than four years of just dabbling here and there.
As a quiz-show host, Pat Sajak has noticed that our pool of common cultural references -- our core curriculum -- is shrinking. And it's getting harder and harder to find material to draw from. "We rarely do books anymore," he complains, "because fewer and fewer people read them." It wasn't till he decided to become a student as well as trustee at Hillsdale that he got around to reading Dostoevsky and The Federalist Papers, what he calls The Good Stuff, though science still baffles him. ("I'm not going to try to figure out protoplasm at this point in my life.")
Pat Sajak calls it the "great irony of our times: that device you've got sitting in front of you" -- here he points to his interviewer's iPhone -- "there is nothing in the history of mankind that you can't find out about in 15 seconds if you pick that up. And yet we know less about things. There's less information floating around in our heads. It's all in the devices."
Ortega y Gasset diagnosed the problem a century ago. The "barbarism of specialization," the author of "The Revolt of the Masses" called it, and it has advanced to the point that few if any of us expect a business major, say, to be educated in the sense Sr. Ortega was -- or an engineer or dental hygienist. Everybody's got his own specialty while the common culture deteriorates.
Recommended reading: "The Conservative Wheelman," Kyle Petersen's interview with Mr. Sajak in the Wall Street Journal. Or pick up any tabloid paper that hasn't gone with the sophisticated flow -- like the Boston Herald or New York Post. Something with the grimy feel of real life. Or anything with a flavor of the real Chicago:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
--Carl Sandburg, "Chicago"
That's right: freight handler. Just like Pat Sajak's father.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.