BOSTON -- As I first turn the pages of the news magazines, I barely notice the ads. The cover stories are what I'm after, sober accounts of the near-war in the Middle East, grim details about the buildup to protect ''our way of life,'' uneasy projections about oil and the economic future.
But gradually the subliminal message in the ads comes into focus as an odd and unsettling counterpoint to the news. They are selling cars: the symbols of ''our way of life.'' Cars are a central character in this conflict that threatens that other American freedom: the freedom to drive.
This is what one car-maker promises in the tense summer of 1990: ''That last-day-of-school feeling of exhilaration and independence you may have been missing for quite some time.''
This is what another boasts while we send more than 35,000 soldiers to protect our supply line: ''It not only looks like fun, it is fun. The undisputed king of the pleasure cruise.''
This is what a third sells as we ship protective gear to guard against Iraq's chemical weapons: ''In some ancient cultures, an Eclipse called for a sacrifice. Today it only calls for $10,919.''
These messages already seem as anachronistic as the ads that once showed doctors recommending Camels. There is not a single mention of gas mileage. The words used are comfort and performance, power and luxury. There are no warnings that cars may be hazardous to our health.
If the ad-makers are caught in a time lag, what can we make of our leaders? In these same weeks, the president has issued no statement about our four-wheeled dependence. He has uttered only the most casual words about conservation as he races his boat off Kennebunkport. Not one of his men has asked Americans to car-pool or even to change our road map for Labor Day. The only concerted action in the nation's capital has been anger at the rising gas prices.
Bush is more at home in the uniform of a commander-in-chief than in the sweater Jimmy Carter donned in the oil crisis of the '70s. This oilman may not want to remind us that he was part of the problem during the deregulated decade, when the country was allowed to forget about energy and put our pedal to the metal.
Now, as environmentalist Barry Commoner puts it, ''We have a military policy instead of an energy policy.'' America has driven itself into this desert conflict. We may make war over what we waste.
The ads before me are emblems of the era in which the all-American movie ends in a car chase and the all-American rite of passage is registering to drive, not to vote. They are emblems of an era in which we still believe what we were once told: What's good for General Motors is good for the country.
Today the United States uses 40 percent of the oil being produced in the world. More than 60 percent of that is for transportation. Our cars travel some 1,250 billion miles a year -- almost as far as all the cars in the world put together. Half of the trips are made by a driver alone.
We built our suburbs for cars, deserted our cities by car, paved some 2 percent of our land for them and polluted the air for them. As the ad puts it: ''Some cars make a statement. This one makes an exclamation.'' When Americans are also being asked to die for oil, that is indeed an exclamation point.
In the days since the young troops landed in Saudi Arabia, some have called for more drilling off our own shores and others for nuclear energy. One would have us choose the pollution of our shores over conservation; another is sure we would prefer the dangers of nuclear waste to sacrifice.
It seems that Washington is still stuck in the stagnant, feel-good '80s, when we wasted time as well as energy -- human and fossil. We knew the importance of cars that use less gas, cars that use renewable resources from crops to sun, cars that run on entirely different engines. We knew the value of mass transit. But our government behaved as if the oil would run forever.
The bugle from the Mideast sounds an unhappy wake-up call. Half a world away on desert sands, our men and women are expected to fight for access to inexpensive oil. But at home, our leaders still remain reluctant to ask Americans what they can do and do without for their country.
So, ''heartbeat of America'' has a very different meaning these days. It's beginning to sound like cardiac arrest.