Britney Spears, blah blah blah. Paris Hilton, blah blah blah. Faces of presidents on dollar bills, blah blah blah.
Every presidential campaign has its silly season, and we're in one now. This is hardly the first such season. When George Washington chose not to run for a third term, the political parties turned political debates into brawls. The most honorable of men traded in various forms of exaggeration, hyperbole, lies and innuendo.
That happens when the stakes are high and human emotions, driven by ambition and power, litter the landscape like trash on the streets after the circus leaves town. In that campaign of 1800, Abigail Adams said the fight between her husband John and Thomas Jefferson spilled enough vitriol and venom to "ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world."
Despite their public scorn of "negative campaigning," both John McCain and Barack Obama have both sampled life on the low road. That will pass when one of them is elected and moves forward to run the country rather than run a campaign. The low road is always tempting, like driving bumper cars at the amusement park. Adlai Stevenson twice ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower vowing to "educate and elevate." He lost both times.
Issues are important, but so are personalities. Both of this year's candidates stand accused already of "playing the race card." Obama at his best rises above color, and shows how a black man with smarts and opportunities can get to the threshold of the White House. Whereas Jesse Jackson exploits victimhood, Barack Obama talks about the possibility that comes with responsibility. That's a big difference.
When Wesley Clark sneered at John McCain's heroics, saying, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," he missed the point (and reflected the soldier's traditional envy and resentment of the fighter pilot).
Conventional wisdom (which I share) says that the election will be decided by the three debates. While the stiff, formal format isn't the best way to test their intellectual mettle, it will nevertheless tell us enough when the candidates finally settle on where they stand on the crucial foreign and domestic issues. By then, we should have a greater sense of their worldviews.