Anna Quindlen: This Is Important

Today is the first day of the rest of this presidential election. Pay close attention. Do not get sidetracked. This is a message to myself. I, too, got snookered by small-bore bickering and secondary ephemera. I sat in front of the television and listened as so-called surrogates for the candidates played gotcha with obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies. A presidential election is a game now, and we're not playing, we're getting played. With very few exceptions—hats off to you, David Gergen—nothing being said has much to do with the future of this country or the well-being of its citizens. As a wise woman said to me the other day, talking points and talking are two very different things.

Once again we find ourselves planting our flag amid rubble. Now it is the rubble of the American economy, with great financial institutions faltering and failing and the stock market every which way. Rubble has become the symbol of this country over the past eight years: the still-unaddressed rubble of a decimated New Orleans, the growing rubble on the streets of Iraq.

At such a time, considering whether a tanning bed was installed in the governor's mansion in Alaska amounts to holding a barbecue on the lip of the volcano. For months I have been wondering how anyone could believe that Barack Obama, who has worshiped at a Christian church in Chicago for many years, was a Muslim. Then in the space of a few hours I received dozens of copies of a bogus list of books the Republican vice presidential candidate had allegedly banned from a local library while serving as mayor. The right no longer holds the patent on cyberbull. It is everywhere.

Maybe this campaign, which looked so promising, so dedicated to real issues and real change a year ago, can now get back on course. The debates are nigh, and they are crucial. The country is in a mess. And in November its citizens must decide who has the integrity, the intellect, the principles to steer us out of it.

Voters must become educated consumers to make that decision. They must draw on multiple sources, not just one. They must be conscious of what is fact, what is spin and what is opinion in a media world in which pundits seem to outnumber reporters. For example, here's my opinion: the only good news in last week's economic earthquake was that the political dialogue took a turn toward the substantive. But John McCain took a sad turn—a U-turn—for the worse. For most of the past 20 years McCain was a senator who was sure and stubborn and stood for certain things, many of them things with which I disagree. But disagreement is honorable; shape-shifting is not. In the space of a single news cycle Senator McCain went from being a longtime supporter of deregulation to a man inveighing against the lack of government oversight in the financial markets. He railed against the greed of Wall Street when Wall Street has been the ancestral home of his party.

In a speech after the 2000 race, Senator McCain had this to say about shifting his stance on the flying of the Confederate flag: "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles." Surrounded by the acolytes of Karl Rove, the carnivorous political operative who once savaged him, with a running mate he seems to have chosen out of calculation rather than the best interests of the country, Senator McCain last week was once again hedging principle in favor of victory. His party has been in power as the country has run aground, yet he and his people try to suggest that the same party with the same people and the same policies will somehow produce different results.

Am I wrong to assume this is preposterous? If so, the senator needs to explain how at the debates. Both he and Senator Obama need to provide detailed and incisive answers, not rote snippets from their stump speeches. Perhaps this is the race in which voters will not be charmed by affect or ripostes. After all, eight years ago, the American people embraced a good ole boy at the polls and wound up with a man neither insightful nor intellectual enough to manage the nation.

The presidency was once aspirational. Voters wanted someone smarter, better informed, stronger than they were.

It can't possibly be that we've become so insecure about our power, our primacy, our place in the world that we can't bear a person who stands on principle. It can't really be that America has become a nation so small-minded that intellect must be belittled. It can't really be about likability, can it? I don't need the president to be my friend. I have friends. What I need is someone to clean up the mess George W. Bush has made of the country I love.

At a moment like this, to discuss who is the pig and who the lipstick in a shopworn simile is a sign that you've gone down a dark road and wound up in a cul-de-sac. Who cares if you like Sarah Palin, if your kid plays hockey and so do hers? Here is the only thing about anyone's kids that matters now: every time you vote you make your kids a promise. It's a promise that you will look past cheap slogans and lazy alliances to try to find a way to make America worthy of a new generation. And if we keep that promise in November, we not only keep faith with our children, we keep faith with the country.