There's a poignant moment for the American political conversation around dinnertime on Election Day. The polls are closing, but the results aren't yet in. Or, more likely, everybody you see on television already knows the likely result thanks to exit polls that -- in a nutty exercise of misplaced high-mindedness -- they don't share with the public. In any event, for politicians and political journalists, there are about 10 seconds when there is truly nothing to say.
It's like the moment of stillness at the top of an amusement park ride, before we plunge back into the cacophony. And the cause is similar, too: The machine is reversing direction.
Before the election, the conversation is all about small things. Political consultants and opposition researchers dredge up or invent some factoid from the other guy's past, or they package a few quotes and a few votes into an unflattering assessment of an opponent's character, and politicians build a campaign around it. When this is not simple demagoguery, it reflects a sincere belief that the small things are what matter.
Political reporters and commentators get sucked in. They may deplore the importance of matters such as how John Kerry got his medals in Vietnam or how George Bush spent his weekends in Alabama, but they can't deny or avoid the importance of these issues if the candidates or their surrogates choose to focus on them. And the voters, for that matter, may deplore the misplaced emphasis and the absence of "real issues," but the pros foist this stuff on the citizenry because, apparently, it works.
As Election Day approaches, the campaign becomes increasingly about itself, like the old "Seinfeld" show. The charges and countercharges focus on the charges and countercharges. How can you trust someone who would call me a liar for what I said about him? A candidate's offhand remark or offbeat facial expression can sustain the cable TV news channels for a couple of news cycles.
Among the commentariat, prestige attaches to obscurity. Dentists' surprising indifference to tort reform. A particular county whose voters have been in the majority every election except seven since 1836. The key -- and overlooked! -- campaign role of the first lady's manicurist.
On Election Day itself, the commentators might as well be slicing open a goat or consulting the oracle at Delphi. Bush will win if it rains in Ohio. Long lines at polling places are good news for Kerry. If your cat coughs up a fur ball while watching Fox News, that means the election will be thrown into the House of Representatives.
Then 10 seconds of silence, and the chatter resumes. The votes are in, the results are known, a winner has been declared. Or so we hope. But now the premise of the conversation is completely different. Smallness is out; largeness is all. The candidate who has spent most of the past six months urging you to vote for him because his opponent wears a brown belt with black shoes now declares that his victory represents the death knell for liberalism in all its manifestations. Political consultants who have pocketed millions in fees for growing hydroponic issues in their Washington, D.C., laboratories now dismiss all that as "static" through which the American people have heard and responded to a clear call for national health insurance right now.
For the pundits, this is the moment to bring out their Gibbon, or their Tocqueville. For the cable news network bookers, this is a moment to try and find this guy Gibbon everybody is talking about (de Tocqueville sounds like he might have a foreign accent), a time to discover that he has been dead for 200 years, and a time to settle for Douglas Brinkley instead. Details are out, generalities are in.
Columnists in a mood to show off no longer assert that the Nebraska Republican primary holds the key to everything. Instead they assert that the election's meaning cannot be grasped until it is understood that the vote was, in its essence, a referendum on whether life has any meaning and that the conclusion was a ringing "perhaps."
The eagerness to generalize about the meaning of the election that you will see this week is especially peculiar because everyone involved is still busy right now, the weekend before the election, predicting that the vote will be terribly close. The 2000 election was the reductio ad absurdum of this tendency. The ultimate victor actually got fewer votes than the guy he beat. But that didn't stop the victor from claiming a mandate for his entire agenda or the pundits from brooding about the continuing historical decline of the loser's ideology.
After a year or more of this election campaign, you may feel like you're drowning in the triviality of it all. Just hold out for two more days, and you'll be swept up in history.
Then you'll really be sorry.
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.