Paul Greenberg

For now the country seems to be in a state of suspended animation, or at least what passes for one in this always dynamic, not to say hyperactive, society. As all await Tuesday's results, speculation takes the place of any actual news. The State of he Union never seemed so purely ceremonial an address.

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But what appears drift may be only flux as Americans sort things out before moving ahead, as usual, in all directions - economically, socially, militarily, politically and of course technologically, this being the land of the free, home of the brave, and natural habitat of tinkerers. The only thing about the future one can be sure of is that it'll be interesting.

Who would have thought a year ago, or even six months ago, that Barack Obama would be coming on like this year's John F. Kennedy, complete with Caroline and Teddy's endorsement? Or that John McCain would start looking like a prophet instead of the last man standing in support of this war in Iraq. The candidate who was in favor of the Surge before it had a name now has made the war the centerpiece of his advancing campaign - instead of the issue no Republican once dared mention.

And who would have thought that Bill Clinton's unmatchable political instincts would have so deserted him in South Carolina? It was embarrassing. Here was Bill Clinton making precisely the wrong analogy when he tried to pigeonhole his spouse's opponent as another Jesse Jackson, meaning just another black candidate.

Anyone with the slightest political intuition would know that Barack Obama's campaign this year bears no real or even much of an imaginary resemblance to Jesse Jackson's in the 1980s. Senator Obama's whole appeal is different, just as his background, approach, and simple but eloquent style are different. A politician as astute as Bill Clinton must have known that, but what th' heck, he saw his opening, even if it was below the belt, and he took it.

Naturally the tactic blew up in his (and Miss Hillary's) face. If this doesn't teach William J. Clinton to stay out of politics this tricky year, nothing will. And of course nothing will. Unless he's talking politics (endlessly) the man would just dry up. Like a little puddle in a dry Arkansas August.

All of which brings to mind the saddest book title I've spotted all this still young year: "Life's a Campaign" by, of course, rootin' tootin' Chris Matthews, the very personification of the political shout shows. Speaking of life, political junkies ought to get one.

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How can you tell the difference between the usual empty assertions in a presidential campaign and those of any substance? Simple. Just imagine what the presidential candidate attacking some rival would have to say if said rival prevailed - and asked the candidate to run for vice president on the same ticket. Suppose, say, that Mitt Romney turns out to be John McCain's running mate in the end. What would happen to all of Mitt's attempts to paint his opponent as nothing but a Democrat in Republican clothing? He'd doubtless ask the rest of us to overlook his earlier, incautious statements as nothing but "campaign rhetoric." That's the term Wendell Willkie used when, after being defeated by FDR in 1940, he teamed up with FDR to prepare the country for war. Unity has a way of returning even after the most hard-fought campaigns.

If she wins the Democratic presidential nomination, of course Hillary Clinton will be able to unite the party - as no one else could. Naturally, I'm talking about the Republican Party.

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Every four years, the country throws a continental conniption fit before the gracious concession speeches are made and the next president is given a fresh start and maybe even a brief honeymoon with public opinion. The experience can prove therapeutic in the end, like making up after a lover's quarrel.

There are exceptions to this wholesome rule, when the whole future of the country does indeed turn out to be at stake, as in 1860, and disaster follows. But in general, partisan and even intraparty passions dissipate and the country moves on, does what it has to do, and, despite sporadic tragedies, defeats, betrayals and disappointments, continues its climb.

There are good reasons why sometimes it seems the whole world wants to move here, and among them are the remarkable continuity of our history and stability of our system, even if those blessings may be obscured for a season by all the rhetorical fireworks of a presidential campaign year.

So enjoy this brief lull while it lasts, which won't be long. As always, surprises await.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.