I interrupt the presidential campaign to bring you an important question:
Can we get serious here? About hyper-serious things?
I pick up the New York Times, and I read the headline, "McCain Cuts Fund-Raiser." How's that? "Senator John McCain's presidential campaign canceled a fund-raiser at the home of an 86-year-old oilman, Clayton Williams, after the campaign faced questions about comments Mr. Williams made in the 1990 campaign for Texas governor."
Note it: 1990. The hair of a now no-doubt senescent newspaper columnist was dark and plentiful then. Hillary was first lady of Arkansas. etc.
"At the time, Mr. Williams, a Republican who was running against Ann Richards, made a joke about rape [correction: He quoted the old Dorothy Parker 'relax and enjoy it' gag]. He also said he would campaign against Ms. Richards, a Democrat, as he would deal with a cow on his ranch: 'Head her and hoof her and drag her through the dirt.' He later apologized for the remarks. The campaign canceled the fund-raiser on Friday after it faced questions from ABC News and The Washington Post."
Ah, well, you know how it is when nothing much is going on -- no war, no inflation, no soaring gasoline prices, no subprime mortgage debacle, no Iranian bomb, no terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo, no crisis over how to fund retirement.
Thank the ink-stained gods of journalism for Claytie Williams, or, rather, thank the Democrats' war room for feeding the journalism gods so vital a piece of information that an elderly, one-time Texas gubernatorial candidate and McCain supporter misspoke, back around the time retail gasoline averaged $1.10 a gallon. Boy, what would we do without these guys?
Poor Claytie. A nicer fellow you couldn't hope to meet. He likely would have made a very good governor of Texas -- certainly a better one than the clueless, if cheerfully brazen, Ann Richards made. Unfortunately, he failed to realize you don't joke around with the media, 'cause they'll getcha.
Fair enough, perhaps. It's when they keep on getting you that serious questions arise in serious minds about the ultimate seriousness of our purpose as we decide who gets to be the world's most powerful leader.
The politics of triviality infects the process in both camps: from why Barack Obama doesn't, or didn't, wear a flag pin, to I-hear-the-guy's-a-Muslim, to, well, two off-key jokes from two decades ago. Last time around, it was the Vietnam-era doings of the two presidential candidates, George Bush and John Kerry, that grabbed us, figuratively, by the necktie. I trust as the present campaign begins in earnest we are duly inspired. Do our eyes grow misty from exposure to such high and urgent discourse as we're hearing?
The problem, no doubt, with constitutional government is that it requires study and application both on the part of those who seek and hold office and those who decide with their votes who actually gets to exercise power. A sound byte -- the phrase wasn't around in 1990 -- won't do the job. Nor the jokes of late-night comics about mental acuity and comically erring husbands. Nor the incessant beating of long-dead horses.
What the candidates, and their campaigns, and the media and the blogs, owe us, in fact, is straightforward discussion of philosophical and policy differences -- those differences, this particular year, being especially large and meaningful.
Some of us who have been around at least since the Williams-Richards tussle of 1990 aren't holding our breath -- finding, at our age, breath to be a more priceless commodity than we once supposed. We hope for the best. We've learned not to expect a lot in terms of direct enlightenment concerning the policy choices lying before us. .
This democracy business, and what the voters do with it, sure is fun. It's also deeply, hugely, painfully, sometimes depressingly serious. The reason I just said that is that no one else seems likely to this year.