New Yorkers are feeling a severe case of heat withdrawal. They were used to being the red-hot center of American news and opinion. Suddenly they're flyover country, relics from a dying tribe, seedy and unloved. They are as forlorn as those fiery partisan books that once pulsed with an angry beat on the bestseller list and now linger on the remainder tables in Barnes & Noble.
The psychiatrist Hadassah Brooks Morgan says that John Kerry's defeat, coming on the heels of the Yankees' collapse in the playoffs against the Red Sox, plunged many of her patients into near-catatonic distress. "In my whole 40 years of practice here I have never heard patients as bereft by a result as this," she told me on the phone. "There was a feeling in session after session of the insult to one's tribe, a loss of purpose and direction. For men, their sports team being beaten at the same time made them feel New York is no longer the command center, no longer the winning city they identify with or that so many people move here to find."
Two weeks after the election, the erstwhile power center of the universe has heaved itself up from the shrink's couch and trudged on, but it's still wearing dark glasses. What makes it worse is all the political news booming away out there. The Bush Cabinet reshuffle is like a percussion band playing in the room next door when you're trying to sleep. All that crashing and banging of big careers and exiting reputations -- will somebody please turn it off? Don't they know politics is over? Can't they take a damn breather from running the world?
The purging of the CIA is clearly the story of the hour, but the only way to read it is as a novel. Everyone is too tired now to want to yammer about how much the legacy of Colin Powell has been bruised or work up appropriate bipartisan admiration for Condi's career climb. From race-torn Alabama to Thomas Jefferson's seat of global influence is a great American journey, okay? Now please turn the light off.
The small quotidian things are what people want in the winded city. Cut off the news, rent the DVD of "Doctor Zhivago," surf the Web for a bargain holiday. Focus on trivia. Serious women of purpose had a nervous breakdown Sunday night when they found ABC's "Desperate Housewives" was off the air for a week.
News anchors who had to spend a heroic year as the only mortals on the planet who couldn't voice an opinion are sullen now with their perceived irrelevance. They refuse to sing for their suppers when guests at media gatherings ask them for a political update. As one of them burst out the other day when I inquired about the Cabinet shakeup: "We analyzed it! We parsed it. We psychoanalyzed it! We did their wives, their aides, their psychographics! We did the effect of prep school and their fathers! And none of it mattered! All I want to talk about now is the new diet pill."
At a panel Thursday about who should be Time magazine's Person of the Year, the debate was whether the annual milestone cover should feature Karl Rove or God, which seems a false choice since everyone knows they are the same thing. (For Karl Rove's sake let's hope they choose God. As anyone who worked for Henry VIII could tell you, eclipsing your boss is the first step to the tower.)
The biggest danger to mental health is to sit around debating the rightness or wrongness of Hillary Clinton in '08. Most sane Democrats right now are on a listening tour. Which means listening to each other say they must have a good-ol'-boy, red-state, glad-handing governor, not an intimidating northeastern liberal amazon.
Big donors who never saw a 527 they didn't like in the '04 race are now dreading that the Clinton library opening this week will get everyone on a nostalgia jag again. As one prominent fundraiser put it: "It will be a great reunion, a time to reminisce. But it doesn't signify the future. It signifies the past. People forget that when the Clinton war room was created in 1992, we had three TV networks and CNN. There were no blogs or Web sites. The world has changed and so has politics. We can't put our hopes in a seance to bring back the spirit of 1992." It's a wan bleat, however, because everyone also knows that by the time Hillary has gotten done with her transformation back from New York senator to daughter of Chicago crossed with Arkansas, they'll be opening their wallets again with the same old abandon.
What's eerie is that the feeling of drift and distraction in New York has an uneasy millennial echo. This is just how it felt on the eve of 9/11 -- except that now the drift is overlaid with a deep, unignorable anxiety. All those vengeful phantoms in Fallujah who have fled our conquering armies -- are they out there somewhere?
"The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," departing Attorney General John Ashcroft told us as he headed back to Missouri to play the organ. But as we read the riveting firsthand battle reports in that irrelevant, marginal New York Times, we dread our new tomorrow. As author Kati Marton put it fiercely, "Osama bin Laden knows where the beating heart of America lies -- which is why he targeted New York City, not a shopping mall in Kansas." Memo to Bushies: cc: Osama -- That mighty heart is beating still.
© 2004, Tina Brown