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.
Since the surge in Iraq that McCain supported in defiance of public opinion, the United States has shown how to stand strong against a terrorist-supporting enemy. A loud and clear message was sent to Osama bin Laden -- and those in the Middle East tempted to follow his example -- that the Americans had staying power not to turn tail as the United States did in Somalia. The international goodwill squandered by George W. will have to be redeemed by the next man to occupy the Oval Office.
In acknowledging the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the editor of the New York Sun recalls that when he was planning a trip to the old Soviet Union, he asked to see Solzhenitsyn before he left. The famous Nobel laureate could not oblige, but offered this advice, "Remember, there is such a thing as good and evil."
I visited the Soviet Union for the first time during Glasnost, and several newspaper editors there told me how heartened they were by Ronald Reagan's characterization of their government as the "evil empire." If the president of the United States could call it like they saw it, there was hope that one day they might live as free men.
In his book "Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions," McCain, writing with Mark Salter, tells of his admiration of Solzhenitsyn for making hard decisions that were not only not popular, but at risk of his life: "He was able to wreak enormous damage on the Soviet system of oppression and hasten the demise of the entire postwar balance of power."
Presidents are confronted with different kinds of decisions, but decisions just as brave and tough in making hard calls. The moment the president sits in the Oval Office, it's irrelevant whether we once saw him as a fighter pilot or a hero of the Hanoi Hilton, or as a celebrity with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, or whether his face belongs on a dollar bill. Can he make the hard call? Will he flinch at the hard ball? Nothing blah blah about that.