Paul Greenberg

As I sit here after Friday night's presidential debate, my memory of it is as disjointed as the debate was. All I have to go by is a notepad full of hasty, incautious impressions. They're about as useful as a hangover from last night's binge.

Unrecorded in my notes, but permeating every page, is a feeling of resentment at having to watch an exercise that had so little to do with the pressing news of the moment: the financial crisis that both candidates had left behind in Washington in order to trade pleasantries, and a few unpleasantries, on national television.

The fulcrum of the country's financial and political seesaw was in Washington, D.C., where an historic deal to keep credit flowing and therefore businesses operating, was being worked out, or rather not worked out. A deal had to be cut before the markets opened Monday. And in the midst of all this the nation's eyes were being directed toward . . . Oxford, Miss.?

A lovely town, Oxford, which has retained some of its Faulknerian ambiance even in these denatured times. I love the place. But no one would confuse it with the center ring of the American economic and political circus maximus in A.D. 2008. Even when two presidential candidates were in town. But to what end? We live, as the historian Daniel Boorstin once noted, in the age of the non-event.

Both candidates sounded as if they were just exchanging canned comments they'd test-marketed for months out on the campaign trial. They did little in this two-man road show but reprise their familiar roles:

John McCain remains the man of action, having flown in from Washington at the last minute. He would head back as soon as the show was over. For he's still the Navy pilot veering off into every firefight. To what end isn't always clear. But where the action is, that's where he'd be as president. His critics call this recklessness, his admirers leadership.

Senator McCain does have a record of service he can be proud of in war and peace. Especially when it comes to (a) criticizing the administration's conduct of the war in Iraq early and often, and (b) helping it reverse course and adopt a new, successful strategy (the Surge) once he and a general named Petraeus finally got the commander-in-chief's its attention.

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.