News

Anna Quindlen: Endless Summer

One night we went to dinner, and when we came down the driveway on our return, it was apparent that the power had gone out. Not a light on anywhere: not by the front door, over the kitchen sink, not even that faint ectoplasmic shimmer we've all learned to recognize as the television screen. At the dining-room table the kids were playing a board game by the light of a Coleman lantern, eating the ice cream they had unselfishly rescued from the out-of-commission freezer. The scene had a nice old fashioned feel: "Little House on the Big Electrical Grid." Or, for a few hours, off it.

It's been more than 500 days since Barack Obama and John McCain announced they were seeking the presidency. The two candidates have raised about a half-billion dollars between them, more than the Red Cross spends annually on disaster relief. Babies have learned to walk and talk, marriages have been celebrated and splintered, American Idols have been crowned and forgotten.

It would have been a godsend if some metaphorical loss of power had forced them, and us, to play Parcheesi and talk by lantern light for the last days of summer. The Olympics couldn't have arrived a moment too soon; at the very least, Michael Phelps and his mom (you wear those medals, Debbie!) gave the American people something else to focus on until the conventions arrived and pretended to be actual events.

Never in political history has a presidential race lasted this long, and the result has been predictable. The erstwhile civic engagement of the primary season has begun to pall. In TV parlance, there's a well-worn phrase: jumping the shark, a specific reference to an episode of "Happy Days" in which Fonzie courted death while water-skiing, and a general term for a good run that has gone on too long.

This presidential race has jumped the shark. Arguments over properly inflating your tires? So-called values debates moderated by the pastor of a megachurch? (It turns out that to "win" such a "debate," a contender need only utter the words "at conception" when asked when life begins. So much for complexity. You "lose" if you make it clear you wish the abortion issue would just go away. So much for conviction.) There were weeks of manic scrambling over the question of who would score the second spot on the tickets, reporters vying to uncover what everyone would know within days anyhow. Policy matters were overshadowed by John Edwards and his cheating, his lying and his unspeakable arrogance.

There are polls— polls released at the same time by the same organization that have completely different outcomes, polls that tell us what's going to happen until it turns out they don't. Between the methodology issues, the fabulous prediction snafu of the New Hampshire primary (which seems like it happened eons ago) and the astonishing fact that people sometimes change their minds, or lie about their intentions, you might as well use the Magic 8 Ball. Ask again later. Reply hazy.

August is usually known as the silly season in News Land because conventional wisdom has it that nothing much happens, and stunt stories take on outsize importance to fill the vacuum. This isn't actually accurate—Nixon resigned and Katrina struck in August, among other things—and there is actually a great deal going on right now, much of it troubling. There's a war that seems to have been forgotten in Iraq, and a new conflict in Georgia, and a housing crash that is eroding a sense of terra firma, and a run on wood stoves at local home stores, at least where I live, by people who fear they will not be able to afford home heating oil come Inauguration Day. "Little House on the Big Recession."

I often wish that everyone could stop what they're doing this time of year, that summer could once again be a time when kids are at loose ends and grown-ups are planning backyard vacations. When I would hear that European countries essentially shut down in August, I would think about how wise their people were. But now European countries are beginning to behave more like us, and we are behaving like us on speed. From the beach, parents text the office; there is a new medical condition called BlackBerry thumb. In the smartest, most thought-provoking film of the summer, the animated "Wall-E," one of the humans on sabbatical from a poisoned planet Earth is thrown away from her video screen and out of her motorized lounge chair. "I didn't know we had a pool," she marvels as she really looks around for the first time. A good friend says cancer treatment can have the same salutary effect. "You do a lot of thinking," she once said, "in the chemo chair."

Surely as they rush from plane to podium to Denver to St. Paul, Senators Obama and McCain can have little time for quiet concentrated contemplation. If presidential races are going to continue to go on for this insane length of time, then August would be a good moment for a negotiated ceasefire: for a week before the conventions each candidate would go to a secure, undisclosed location and make a concerted attempt to remember what he or she stands for. (In a different secure, undisclosed location, the hosts of cable news shows rest with eyeshades and ice packs and attempt to have a thought that is neither derivative nor extreme.) That way we might not have to devolve into a debate about whether Michelle Obama is better dressed than Cindy McCain. If life was like a TV set, we'd all fast-forward right now to the presidential debates. If life had a pause button, perhaps we'd all be better off.

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