Where is America?
America is on line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask. America is guilty until proven innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention.
America left its ticket and passport in the jacket in the bin in the X-ray machine, and is admonished. America is embarrassed to have put one one-ounce moisturizer too many in the see-through bag. America is irritated that the TSA agent removed its mascara, opened it, put it to her nose and smelled it. Why don't you put it up your nose and see if it explodes? America thinks, but does not say.
And, as always America thinks: Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and embarrassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would even admit privately that all this harassment is only the government's way of showing that it is "fair," of demonstrating that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? Our politicians congratulate themselves on this as we stand in line.
All the frisking, beeping and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that politics has lessened everything, including human dignity.
Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone else, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the cell phone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate silk blouse beneath the removed jacket, praying that nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.
America makes it through security, gets to the gate, waits. The TV monitor is on. It is Wolf Blitzer. He is telling us with a voice of urgency about the latest polls. But no one looks up. We are a nation of Willy Lomans, dragging our wheelies through acres of airport, walking through life with a suitcase and a slack jaw, trying to get home after a long day of meetings, of moving product.
No one in crowded Gate 14 looks up to see what happened with the poll. No one. Wolf talks to the air.
Gate 14 is small-town America, a mix, a group of people of all classes and races and ages, brought together and living in close proximity until the plane is called. Our town appears, the plane is boarded, the town disappears. An hour passes, a new town begins. This is the way of modern life. We live in magic and are curiously unillusioned.
Gate 14 doesn't think any of the candidates is going to make their lives better. But Gate 14 will vote anyway, because they know they are the grownups of America and must play the role and do the job.
But here's something they notice, we notice. Our leaders are now removed from all this, removed from life as we live it each day.
No lines for leaders
There is as I write broad resentment toward President Bush, and here is one reason: a fine and bitter sense that he has never had to stand in his stockinged feet at the airport holding the bin, being harassed. He has never had to live in the world he helped make, the one where Grandma's hip replacement is setting off the beeper over here and the child is crying over there. And of course as a former president, with the entourage and the private jets, he never will.
Nor will Bill Clinton, nor the senators and leaders who fly by private jet.
I bet a lot of Americans, most Americans, don't like it. I'm certain Gate 14 doesn't.
All this is part of the mood of the moment. It is marked in part by a sense that our great institutions are faltering, that they've forgotten the mission; that the old America in which we were raised is receding, and something new and quite unknown is taking its place; that our leaders have gone astray. There is even a feeling, a faint sense sometimes that we have been relegated to the role of walk-on in someone else's drama, that as citizens we are crucial and yet somehow … extraneous.
But we are Americans, and mean to make it better. We long to put the past few years behind us, move on, and write something good on the page we sense turning.
In all this I am not saying, as Rodney King did, Why can't we all just get along? We can't because we're human: Something's wrong with us. But we can do better.
I don't mean "we must outlaw politics," or "splitting the difference is always best." Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way. We can fight honorably and in good faith, while — and this is the hard one — both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.
To me it is not quite a matter of "rising above partisanship," though that can be a very good thing. It's more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.
If nothing else, this means we must now have our fights over big issues, issues of real consequence that are pertinent to the moment we're in. We shouldn't be fighting and hitting each other over the head over little things, stupid things, needlessly chafing ones.
When I would think of this the past few years I'd always return to one thing, a prime example of the old way of doing politics. This was the movement, now quiescent, to alter the Constitution of the United States to outlaw … flag burning. Imagine changing that great document for such a stupid thing. As if it meant anything if an idiot burned a flag; as if a lot of idiots were even burning flags — which they weren't, and aren't. I called it a movement, but of course it wasn't: It was a political game played by one team in order to embarrass the other. "He doesn't love our flag — he won't even protect it!" Boo! goes the crowd.
And yet the oddest thing is … the crowd knows it's being played. They know their buttons are being pushed. And this doesn't leave them feeling more inspired by, more trusting in, the system. So much of our silliness is, in the end, destructive.
And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace — a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.
So where are we now? I yank this into the present to look at the landscape on which a rise to the challenge is possible, but not, I'm afraid, very likely.
It is autumn, and America is picking a president. It has been exciting. The whole year was confounding, putting the professional political class in its place, leaving the experts scratching their heads, and giving us all the feeling — so precious, so rare — that the people are in charge. They make the decisions, not pollsters. And you never knew what they'd do next. John McCain was over and done a year ago, out of money and out of luck. And then: He wins the nomination. Barack Obama was unknown and outmatched a year ago, sure to be a victim of someone else's inevitability. Well. Nothing is inevitable. And he wins the nomination.
A year of marvels. And now two men, McCain and Obama, each worthy in his way of admiration, battle it out. Neither seems by nature inclined toward brute, gut-player politics. One, McCain, had been hurt by it in the past, his presidential prospects in part done in by it in the Republican primaries of 2000. He has a temper, and at some point he'll have shown it, but the ugly road, I think, embarrasses his pride. The other, Obama, seems temperamentally not inclined to be a killer, to encourage the dark side of politics. It's not his history: He took down a machine without raising his voice.
Something tells me that the election will show itself to be rough indeed, if not because of the candidates themselves then very much because of their surrogates or would-be surrogates — a million freelancers and operatives, YouTube Fellinis, and political action committees.
Two huge teams are in a massive public brawl in an era in which the Internet has liberated everyone in the country from the old restrictions, the old establishment, the old, encrusted media monopoly.
YouTube has yielded, this year, the most moving and wittiest advertisements about each of the candidates. Professional political consultants with their piece of the buy didn't produce them, artists did. For Obama, it was the video by will.i.am, with the Obama speech and the snatches of song made from his words. More than anything else this year, it captured the feeling behind his movement. The McCain video, alas, was anti-McCain, and keyed off the will.i.am video. It featured young people and artists taking snatches of McCain speeches, turning them into song, and then starting to … freak out as they listened to the words. It made you laugh out loud. Anyway, one of the untold stories of the year is the failure of the political professionals to compete with the art and brightness of the nonprofessionals.
All of this will be part of the background music of the 2008 campaign. So: It's probably gotten mean out there.
And of course it is not only the result of technology, and partisanship, and human mischief. Some of it has been the result of the past seven years, that trying time with which we have not fully come to grips. Some of the personalities and circumstances that shaped the era are about to ease off the stage. In some way we're about to turn the page. Maybe John McCain or Barack Obama can help us write something good on it.
Who is up to it?
Yet the economic crisis brings a new question, only recently being articulated, and I know because when I mention it, people go off like rockets. It is: Do you worry that neither candidate is up to it? Up to the job in general? Is either McCain or Obama actually up to getting us through this and other challenges? I haven't heard a single person say, "Yes, my guy is the answer." A lot of shrugging is going on out there. The big shrug is a read not only on the men but on the moment.
The overarching political question: In a time of heightened anxiety, will people inevitably lean toward the older congressional vet, the guy who's been around forever? Why take a chance on the new, young man at a time of crisis? Wouldn't that be akin to injecting an unstable element into an unstable environment? There's a lot at stake.
Or will people have the opposite reaction? I've had it, the system has been allowed to corrode and collapse under seven years of Republican stewardship. Throw the bums out. We need change. Obama may not be experienced, but that may help him cut through. He's not compromised.
The election, still close, still unknowable, may well hinge on whether people conclude A or B.
Adapted from Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now, which was just published. Copyright 2008 by Peggy Noonan. Published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.