So you're going along, smirking or gnashing your teeth, with visions of Denny Hastert and Mark Foley dancing in your head; the issues pretty much defined -- Hastert out, Hastert in, Democrats in power, Republicans in power. And then...
And then North Korea joins the nuclear club.
To appropriate Dr. Johnson's observation about the impressive productivity of a writer facing the gallows, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Or let's just say it should, despite the present junior-high state of mind that reigns in our centers of media and political power, a state we could sum up thus:
No, got you !
Nyaah, nyaah, you missed!
And so on. Whoever once had misgivings about the extension of the franchise to 18-year-olds may drop them like a hot potato. The middle-aged now act, if anything, goofier and more recklessly than such 18-year-olds as have the maturity and decency not to exercise the franchise.
The great carnival of 21st century American life rolls forward, exhibiting more and more of the self-regarding, self-destructive passions to which we are sadly accustomed.
Prior to 9/11, the big story in Washington, D.C., the one over which everyone salivated while awaiting the next salivating development, was the disappearance of former Washington, D.C. (not Capitol Hill) intern Chandra Levy and her supposed relationship with Democratic Congressman Gary Condit.
Prior to this week's successful North Korean nuclear test, the big story had been a gay Republican congressman and his contact (nature not wholly defined yet) with teenage congressional pages.
A matter of no consequence? Only an idiot would say or think so. The roaring success of the sexual revolution -- you for me, me for you, let's go! -- hasn't canceled the moral obligations of adults toward the young and vulnerable. But the Foley investigation? And who knew and who didn't? And can Speaker Hastert survive? And should he? That's where we are, while the North Koreans prepare undoubted weapons of mass destruction?
You might say -- I would -- there's a disconnect here, both moral and cultural. Perhaps no nuttier, when it comes to salivation, than were earlier, less excitable generations. Still, several disagreeable factors stoke our present nuttiness and inability to handle these matters with a sense of proportion.
1. Iraq and the 2000 election. It turns out a lot of people who watched George W. Bush claim the presidency and later invade Iraq really hate him and all his works. We have never, I think, in our history seen this level of loathing for a chief executive, not in Franklin Roosevelt's day, not even in Bill Clinton's, when disgust and contempt -- distant relations of hatred -- were the dominant emotions. Some of us seemingly can't think of anything other than the "evil" their president -- and, of course, lackeys like the speaker -- has done.
2. A new media culture -- one of constant accusation, overstatement and hyperbole -- tailored to the needs of the Internet with its insatiable appetite for the shocking. On the worst of the blogs -- a highly overpopulated category -- you're not just mistaken or misguided; you're a stupid, evil #!*%!# who'd sell his cooing infant daughter for a few votes or bucks. The preternatural ability of these obsessed accusers to capture and hold our attention has not been sufficiently appraised -- and maybe can't be just yet.
Meanwhile, the North Koreans, metaphorically, prepare and light their fuse. Who can say authoritatively what the real danger is, or what counter-measures are indicated? We can figure out, even so, the importance of such a matter relative to the importance of another -- yes, another! -- Capitol Hill sex scandal.
Are we on the verge of questioning the frivolity and self-centeredness that customarily drive modern national conversations? Probably not with the seriousness requisite to the task. On the other hand, it's almost a relief to consider seriously a matter of life or death, instead of our usual speciality, a matter of spite and sleaze.
Now wouldn't be exactly the worst time in the world for Americans to ... grow up.