Ever since the first snapshots of the hooded, wired-up Iraqi on the box we were yearning for some powerful defining image of American goodness to expunge Abu Ghraib's postcards from hell. Instead, we got an image of unfathomable horror and helplessness: Nick Berg decapitated before our eyes. His slaughter happened three days before we saw it, but as he dies and dies again on the video his death will always be in real time.
After 10 days of self-flagellation, reassertions of the American identity have begun to appear. The truer face of America was not a GI giving a thumbs-up sign behind a pile of pornographic victims but the sturdy little figure of Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba in a Senate hearing room, standing up for duty and honor, and with "sirs" and "ma'ams" quietly defending his conclusions about who was in charge against the spin from the dark-suited bureaucrat sent by the civilian Pentagon to chaperon and control him.
In Manhattan, authors, politicians and captains of industry were using their public roles to fortify and inspire the national psyche as they went about their daily business of self-promotion. At the World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall Monday morning, Rudy Giuliani strode around the stage with his increasingly Churchillian hairline, speaking without notes for an hour about the courage, clarity and relentless preparation that had allowed him to rise to the crisis of 9/11. Retired GE fireball Jack Welch did a fiercely motivational Q and A with a Fortune editor about how winning in business is good, not bad, understand me, winning lifts us all up to do more.
On Monday night Laura Bush showed up at a small dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park hosted by the president's best friend, Roland Betts, wife Lois, J.W. Marriott Jr. and wife Donna to talk about her library fund to a small group of philanthropic donors. Wearing a crisp white Oscar de la Renta silk suit, she spoke with softly smiling eyes and a warm Texan voice about the needs of children at a school in New Jersey. They had eagerly listened to the stories she read to them, stories that were nowhere to be found in their school's half-empty library shelves still stocked with atlases that showed Russia as the Soviet Union.
"After our reading, the kids did some drawings that I brought to show you tonight," she told us as she raised aloft a colorful splash of childish refrigerator art that featured a little girl with a book looking gratefully up at a stick-figured first lady. "This one is George's special favorite." Mrs. Bush glimmered with such artless goodwill it made you want to weep. What has happened to moments like this in public life -- the vanished niceness of the normal? As we sat there eating chocolate desserts in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine, the White House was swirling in clouds of shame, reprisal and blame. The anonymous quotes from underlings at State and Defense carried the sick dread of failure. Mrs. Bush's playful reference to her husband's "special favorite" was like a glimpse from some sepia-toned movie.
So was the theme of Tim Russert's book "Big Russ and Me," a heartwarmer about his staunchly loyal father that launched the same night. At this event it was as hard to keep the world at bay as it is on his show. Fox's gladiator Roger Ailes, in a prophetic preview of the following day's news, was on the rampage about how all the breast-beating about Abu Ghraib was obscuring the murderous nature of Islamic terrorism. "I know that's not popular in some crowds," he told me, genially. "Like all the Paula Zahn viewers who hang out at Le Cirque."
Knock it off, please, Roger. We're not in the mood. Political point-scoring has gotten old. It's all too weird and scary and dark to keep playing the partisan game. "Saddam was even worse" is not a slogan to inspire. Yes, and Hitler was even worse than Saddam. But this is not a continuum we want to find ourselves on, even at the "good" end.
The Iraq horror has reached the point where the opinion industry is in meltdown. The bloggers, the talking heads, the talk radio hosts are only competing roars of the same fury, defensiveness or shame.
Maybe that's why, shortly after the Nick Berg news broke on Tuesday afternoon, the only place you wanted to be was in a room with Sen. John McCain. At the New York launch of McCain's "Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life," the host, Barry Diller, feted his hero with a bevy of heavies in the media-political firmament, from Mike Bloomberg and Lorne Michaels to Tom Brokaw and Bob Wright. They fastened on him like children tugging at Mister Rogers's sleeve.
McCain had flown up straight from the Senate hearings on Abu Ghraib, but for a change it was not news the clamorers were after. It was a piece of his calm. His book is a succession of narratives about the men and women of valor he admires. The quiet authority of his essays on courage is that he never tells you about his own. He is physically not a big man, but as a moral leader he looms ever larger and larger in the public imagination. He is open and candid, a refuge from spin and arrogance.
Four years ago as a presidential candidate he brought his dashing brio to the Straight Talk Express. Today it is his centered serenity that impresses more. Little by little he has become a national conscience. We have come to depend on his impatient decency. You know that John McCain will keep the image of Abu Ghraib's outrages in the clarity of his mind's eye even as he stares down the hooded murderers of Nick Berg.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown