Quindlen: Political Pundits Must Rise Up

This is not a column about Ann Coulter. Otherwise it would be irrelevant. When the conservative lounge act used an anti-gay slur to refer to John Edwards while speaking to a Republican gathering, she catapulted herself momentarily back into the public eye. That, of course, is what she was after. As Warren Beatty once said of Madonna, she doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. If it takes a bit of desperate bigotry to make the cameras whir—well, desperate times demand desperate measures.

"Desperate" is the key word here. The national snarkfest is on its way out, and good riddance. Like doo-wop when the Beatles showed up, an era is grinding to a close. The landscape of American discourse has grown lousy with agents provocateurs whose careers are built around delivering verbal depth charges, not information. The form is now officially past its sell-by date.

The public has outgrown it.

This is an election that really matters. NBC News recently reported that 73 percent of Americans say they are following it closely, an astounding figure in a country in which it's a big deal if more than half the electorate votes. Everywhere there's talk that this may be the most momentous race in our lifetime, that it's clear that the country is teetering on the cusp of something, good, bad or cataclysmic.

The war that is a fruitless quagmire. The government that can't even provide adequate services to returning soldiers. The stock market that seems to be on a vertiginous ride. The housing bubble ready to blow away middle-class families.

An educational system that often seems not to educate. A criminal-justice system that is a swamp for the victim and the accused. A health-care system that leaves sick people running up chemo on their high-interest credit cards. And a future built on a monstrous deficit that could sink Social Security and any other meaningful entitlement program for coming generations.

This is an election that belies all the old cynical constructs with which journalists found themselves so comfortable for so long. The one about how no one good runs anymore? Gone. On the Democratic side of the aisle, it sometimes seems that everyone good is running. If half the candidates in the field pulled out now—any half of them—there would still be plenty of possibilities with smarts, experience and credibility. The number of serious Republican contenders is far smaller, but at least the party is no longer completely paralyzed by the usual litmus tests: abortion, gay rights, gun control. Why, Mitt Romney alone has been on both sides of almost every one of those issues!

See, I'm falling into the trap myself. Political reporting and commentary has become a burlesque show, with sober analysis losing the field to the snappy comeback. Stephen Colbert has made a brilliant TV career out of simply pretending to be a true believer, which has become an idea so laughable that he gets lots of laughs. But what happens when the real true believers surface again, Americans who suspect their families are on the edge of a volcano and who hope, despite everything, that maybe someone can run the country well enough to pull everyone back from the edge? They need more than ripostes. Sure, there's still room for satire in dissecting the body politic. But when satire morphs into mockery, and mockery morphs into savagery and suddenly it's all savagery, all the time—well, does any of that really advance the debate?

If, as many suspect, this is either a moment for the United States to prevail or to implode, a radio program, a column or a TV talk show really matters. It's a valuable piece of public real estate that should be earned every day, by engaging rather than interrupting, by reasoning rather than rabble-rousing. Maybe even by doing the really unthinkable in the civic auditorium and trying to move the conversation in fruitful directions. In the constant search for the new and the counterintuitive, one answer might be to get ahead of the curve with solutions instead of bringing up the rear with opprobrium, to be the ringmaster rather than the guy with the broom and the pan following the elephants.

Someone once told me that the media are always fighting the last war. Personal attacks and cynical put-downs are so last-time-around. Maybe idealism is the new black. Were there commentators during World War II content to mock the way Hitler styled his mustache, or the idea of Franklin Roosevelt's running (ha, ha—get it? Running?) for a fourth term? If so, they've been forgotten.

These times are, in some fashion, as significant and serious as those, and the way in which voters are attending to this election and the issues makes that clear. This election is not a joke; this moment deserves more than playground-bully punditry. The people who pontificate for pay need to rise to the level of their audience. That will certainly be a stretch for many of them. But it's better than being remembered decades from now as a person who wasted time doing the tired old nah-nah as the republic crashed and burned.