Paul Greenberg
I tried to stay interested in Bill O'Reilly's interview with Barack Obama some weeks ago. Honest I did. Duty called but, when I answered, it turned into what seemed a life sentence. On and on these two went, pausing at every familiar stop, but not for very long. Like the local to Glencoe.

Interviewer and interviewee quibbled the whole way, like an unhappy couple you really didn't want to overhear, and the more they spoke, the less they said. A familiar pattern was established from the first and maintained to the end: feint, jab and move on. To sum up the sequence: Gotcha, No You Don't, Next Question....

Not a thought in a carload, or at least not a new one. Just the same old routine delivered by a couple of jaded troupers who know each other's lines so well they must have been happy for the show to end. Which gave them something in common with much of the audience watching.

If there was anything striking about this interview, it was how sealed-off the mind of each participant seemed. Like political ads passing in the night. They had to have been as bored as the viewers. Then again, what I don't know about how political egos work is a lot. They may have found each other's talking points absolutely fascinating, though surely not as fascinating as their own.

It's a common enough problem when politicians or just those who comment on politics from the sidelines appear before the television camera's unblinking eye. They don't seem to have thoughts so much as an agenda, and they stick to it.

Bill Clinton, the ultimate political animal, was like that. He could talk anybody under the table, out the door and into the blind staggers. He's probably still talking somewhere at this very moment -- to a banquet hall full of glazed-over eyes, or a caucus of the last Blue Dog Democrats still standing, or just to anybody in earshot.

This much the Bill-and-Barack Show captured perfectly: the poverty of American discourse. Indeed, is there any discourse left, or has it been completely replaced by dueling sound bites that never really engage with each other?

It was like watching a tennis match in which the much-hyped stars don't actually play each other. They just occupy the same court and take turns smashing the ball into the net; there are no real volleys. That's not sport, it's self-absorption, however good both may be at it.

The overwhelming impression left by the interview was that any real discourse, any real engagement over ideas, was taking place somewhere else at the moment. Probably in Egypt. It wouldn't be the first time the real choice before all of us -- hazardous freedom or secure slavery -- was laid out in the land of the Pharaohs. It's a tale as old as the Book of Exodus.


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.