The country is in a strange mood, filled with unease, and an odd passivity. At one time, a terrorist attack on an American destroyer, killing American sailors, would have brought an explosion of outrage, cries for revenge, Teddy Roosevelt bluster. Instead, the country seems subdued. Too many other anxieties are floating unmoored in the mind fears about the stock market, about Middle Eastern war, about oil prices, about the possibility that the good-time '90s are about to turn, post-millennium, into their own evil twin. Americans have a sneaking superstition about Clinton: When he goes, the lucky '90s go. What waits?
I almost could not bear to watch the third debate. I suppose that there have been more dispiriting presidential races in the past; I know there have. In fact, the choice last time, in 1996, was unappetizing enough. But something in me this year has snapped. The debate almost had me throwing things at the television. The mere sight and sound of these two men has grown odious; the election has come to seem the dead end of some massive hoax.
Early in the evening, I got on a bicycle and rode to a lecture hall where Elie Wiesel was to speak as he has each fall for 25 years at Boston University on biblical themes.
I settled into a seat at the back of the hall. "Let us study," Wiesel began quietly. "To enter the text is to be warmed by an ancient flame."
Wiesel embarked upon a spirited discourse upon the strange prophet Hosea, whom God commanded to marry a prostitute. Why would God require such an unseemly thing?
Wiesel explicated with a sweetness and urgency that made the question seem infinitely more interesting and immediate than the presidential question before us now. Breaking away from Hosea for a moment, Wiesel suggested that instead of talking politics, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Barak and Arafat, ought to sit down and study together.
A rarefied, peculiar idea. Fatuous? No. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a noble one.
The lecture was a bracing refreshment. I went home and did my duty by watching the third debate. At the end of it, Tom Brokaw, who has worked up a bizarre enthusiasm for these things, said that just as the World Series is settled in seven games, he wished that Bush and Gore could have four more debates. I worry about Brokaw. I wished, on the contrary, that the candidates could follow Wiesel's formula that in some redeeming, parallel world, they could sit down together and set their minds to the intelligent, disinterested exploration of some matter outside the ambit of their disfiguring and depthless political ambitions.
Wiesel, as he came to the end of his discourse on the minor prophet Hosea, discussed Maimonides' interpretation of the marry-a-harlot theme. Maimonides, the greatest of Judaism's medieval philosophers, explained the entire business (God's commandment to marry a whore, Hosea's predicament) as a vision, a fiction, a fantasy, a daydream. Maybe so. If only this campaign were merely a daydream, an error of the American psyche, correctable by waking.
As it happens, I woke in the middle of the night, and it came to me that there may have been, after all, some hilarious parable at work in my evening, some occult line drawn between the prophet Hosea and the coming election. For surely, said I to myself, our presidential politics (given the necessities of fund-raising) has become a form of harlotry. The Constitution commands us to choose a president as God commanded Hosea to choose a wife. Our predicament as voters has something in common with Hosea's.