Two weeks ago, it seemed as though the American public might end up casting a leadership vote on the basis of lipstick and pigs (or pitbulls), the verbal distinctions between snowmobiles and "snow machines," and whether or not the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, intended to go all out for
the Democratic presidential ticket between now and November 4th.
That was before last weekend. First, the bad news: Wall Street took a hit the likes of which has rarely been seen since October 1929, and the collapse and near-collapse of several venerable firms in the American financial community is now on the front end of whatever's happening, not the back end. One of the still-standing but teetering companies, the giant AIG insurance conglomerate, is due for a double whammy as a result of the after-effects of Hurricane Ike. The same natural catastrophe has driven already high gasoline prices further skyward and caused new concerns about the long-term oil supply.
As dire as that outlook is, what then can be the good news?
Our bet (and certainly our hope) is that the ever-worsening economic crisis will force American voters, afflicted directly in the pocketbook, to look away from the Disney-like scenarios which have dominated political coverage since the two national political conventions and dare to look the abyss in the face. Really, they will have little choice. We are reminded of a line in a story by the late great Donald Barthelme in which that genius miniaturist has a character say, "You may not be interested in the absurd, but the absurd is interested in you."
The ongoing crisis is rapidly escalating to the same stature as that which confronted voters in 1932, when the bottom altogether dropped out of the American economy, or in 1940, when the nation knew it had to gear up to face determined adversaries abroad.
Given the fact that both these specters are looming before us right now, it behooves us to forget about cover girls and "reality" shows and focus on ... well, reality. Which of the presidential candidates (or tickets) has real solutions to real problems? Instead of asking who's the best communicator, we need to know which is the best message being communicated. Personality issues will continue to be important, but they will surely be transmuted from questions of celebrity or likability or pizzazz into matters of character and dependability.
We have our own notions of which candidate and which ticket can best serve the nation, but we live in the real world, and we know that others will disagree — for reasons that may be as good as our own. We urge only that anyone casting a vote this year look beyond the cosmetic surface and beyond even the partisan bromides that so many of us — left, center, and right — live by. If we don't get it right this time around, there may not be a convenient next time to play catch-up.
Within this very month, a few miles to the south of us, John McCain and Barack Obama will stand side-by-side and begin laying their cases before the people. There will be two more presidential debates after that and one for the vice-presidential candidates. Pay attention, please. It's all-important.