News Is Not Life

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Last Monday night, while the Supreme Court was pondering whether or not George Bush should be our next president, we made a little news ourselves: We had a baby boy.

I spent the next two days in the hospital, and during that time I didn't hear one person mention the presidential election. Televisions were on, but they were either showing old movies or afternoon talk shows that were more concerned with teenage girls who sass their mothers.

I confess that every now and then, in between feedings and naps, I switched the channel in the visitors' waiting room to CNN to get a quick fix on the presidential news. But after weeks and months of following the whole messy business, it all seemed somehow contrived and unimportant.

I suspect that's how most Americans regarded the situation in Florida. As a carnival sideshow to their lives. Interesting, yes; amusing, sometimes; but mostly irrelevant.

One of the most beautiful lines in English literature gets at this idea. It's from a poem by Samuel Johnson:

"How small of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

As a speechwriter, I tried but failed to get this line in my candidate's speeches. It gets at what most people believe about politics: that it has nothing to do with what's really important in their lives. That politics ultimately does not minister to the human heart.

I actually disagree with this in many ways. I believe that politics, at its best, can and does deal with what human hearts endure. And even in that hospital, I saw the good that government can do, from the education grants it gave to our doctor to the safety regulations that governed the use of anesthesia.

But that is precisely what is wrong with our politics. That people think and believe that it doesn't matter. That it doesn't speak to them. That it doesn't touch them where they live their lives.

Politics has become a ridiculous Punch and Judy show, a senseless struggle between people of overweening personal ambition surrounded by the jackal howls of the media.

This idea, that politics is more heat than light, is a very old idea in America. George Washington loathed the idea of political parties. The founders had the idea that the citizenry, if left alone, would minister to itself. "The government that governs best governs least," wrote Thomas Jefferson. And that was because people, if left to their own devices, didn't need a whole lot of managing.

I'm not sure that's true. I believe in a different idea about politics: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." (I'll let you guess who said that.) But the way politics has evolved in the last two decades has debased the very idea that it can have meaning in our lives. And that is sad. High office is a public trust, and so many have squandered that trust. Most people today see public servants as serving their own ambition, not the public.

It doesn't have to be that way.

It would be nice if George W. Bush could try to change that. He said all the right things on Wednesday night, that he was elected to serve not party but country. But every politician who wins a close election sings the song of bipartisanship. I hope he means it.

We're all home now. And this baby is sleeping a whole lot better than his brother did. And I'm a lot more interested in whether he'll have blue eyes or brown than in who George W. will put in his Cabinet.

It's another reminder that news is not life. News is something that happens while you're making other plans.