It's not surprising the networks didn't air the president's speech on Monday. At last week's previews of the upcoming TV season, the big three revealed that they would cut back on summer reruns. And aside from the special-effects addition of blowing up Abu Ghraib prison, there were no more new ideas to be found in Bush's Iraq address than in an old episode of "The Bachelor."
Fortunately we had a new sitcom to talk about at the water cooler -- "Everybody Hates Ahmed," about a wily Iraqi named Ahmed Chalabi who pulls a rug out from under the world's biggest superpower. (The show that would have followed, "Sanchez," a military drama starring an up-and-coming Hispanic actor, has already been canceled.)
All the other Iraq debacles have been fiercely sad. The Chalabi Conundrum is one of escalating farce. He bamboozles all the hard men of the Bush junta into paying him millions for false information and installing him as our man in Iraq. Then he is accused of stealing real information and feeding it to the Iranians, and gets busted by either incensed Iraqis, George Tenet or maybe himself to grab some credibility with the Arab street. It has the deliciously wacky late colonial flavor of a novel by Evelyn Waugh.
Democrats have needed a legitimate reason for a belly laugh. For weeks there has been a growing, awestruck sense that the wheels are coming off the Bush reelection bus. But the news is too excruciating to provide any glee. There was that terrible day when the images competing on the TV screens were the shame of the Abu Ghraib hearings versus the pain of the 9/11 hearings versus the weeping scenes of street carnage in the bombing of Gaza. It's hard not to feel nostalgic for wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and all the other super-size celebrity indecencies we could pretend to be shocked about. Who wouldn't want to go back to the time when "body parts" conjured up Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, the ancient history of four months ago?
On a flight to Washington a woman next to me sat with an unopened pile of newsmagazines on her lap, staring glassily at the latest issue of Real Simple.
Books only make it worse. "60 Minutes" finished its season on Sunday with another edition from its Authors With Their Hair on Fire series, this time starring retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni. The big, square, outraged face of this four-star chunk of military integrity talking in close-up about the epic blunders of Rumsfeld's postwar planning was enough to send your blood pressure through the roof. Who's the next author to come raging out of the bullpen with an expose to wreck our dreams? Barbara Bush?
A giddy, apocalyptic feeling now reigns in Democratic circles in New York. Giddy because Bush is sinking in the polls, and there's a sneaking sense that Kerry just might be able to pull it off. Apocalyptic because as the date for the Iraqi handover draws closer, the darkness of uncertainty and foreboding dampens even the adrenaline of partisan politics.
That's why it might seem strange that on Monday night conflicted Dems felt a sense of composure for the first time in weeks at a lecture at the Universalist church on Central Park West about how the world is likely to end. Stranger still that the person telling them about the impending disaster was the 43rd president of the United States -- or, rather, the man who this crowd believes rightfully earned that title: Al Gore.
With a supporting cast of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Al Franken and two distinguished weather worthies, the former vice president was the lead player in a global warming presentation by MoveOn.org. The event preceded a premiere on the American Museum of Natural History's Imax screen of the new Fox disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow." It may seem strangest of all that the former deputy leader of the free world is now hawking his environmental strategies as a blockbuster movie tie-in. But there was something inspiring about the New Gore's unpretentious willingness to exploit a popular-culture moment if that's what it takes to be heard.
When he got up to do his thing, it was a welcome transformation from Gore 2000. In the first half of the Bush presidency, when you ran into Gore toting his laptop at an airport he looked as fat and unhappy as you would expect of someone who has exchanged Air Force One for an aisle seat in business class. But something has happened in the years of psychic pain and family affirmation that no hectoring political handler could ever produce when he was on the campaign trail. Al Gore has finally broken out.
Perhaps it's his spiritual affinity with the geeky MoveOn crowd that's done it. Instead of seeing him as a spent political force, their interest makes him feel like Bob Dylan jamming with a younger band. It allows him to unleash the knowledge and the fluent passions of an authentic self he was always too politically inhibited to reveal before. "Glaciers don't care about politics," he told us happily. "They really don't. They are extremely objective. They just melt or freeze based on the world's temperature."
Over four years, Bush and Gore have oddly traded places. Now it's Bush who feels trapped in the uptight armor of his superego, not Gore. It's Bush whose Oedipal dramas haunt him with some doomed obligation to manly inflexibility.
On Wednesday morning at New York University, Gore ramped up his act again with a blistering foreign policy address.
All that buoyant self-assurance, smoking anger and unused expertise are better late than never.
Maybe, after all, Gore still has a political sequel.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown