Waiting for an end to the presidential campaign with much the same avidity felt by Nina and Pinta crew members looking for land, I think it's best to make a point before all the political noise blessedly fades from memory. Those Europeans who wish they could vote in our election have not had to sit through two years of commercials.
But worse even than the 30-second slanders is the endless chatter of the commentators, who now outnumber Nader voters but are scarcely more effective. Their fatuity never slacks. Nearly every one of them, right or left, television or print, openly partisan or unconvincingly neutral, has managed to be dead wrong about everything that has happened from the first caucus to the last exit poll. The failure either to predict or understand is so ubiquitous that one would think that commentators just don't get politics, but now that they've turned their attention to the economy with equal incompetence we see that the fault is not in the stars but in themselves.
One of the cable networks actually boasts of having "the best political team in television," which, if true, is a lot like being the happiest mortgage banker this month.
Of all the offenses to common sense in political coverage the worst has emerged in covering the debates. On more than one channel, there is now a little graphic display at the bottom of the screen as the candidates go after one another. There are three fluctuating lines, much like a monitor during surgery, and each line has a different color -- for instance, one for Democrats, one for Republicans and the third for independents. When a candidate says something on camera -- anything -- you see the lines moving quickly in reaction, seldom in unison.
It seems that in some holding room somewhere a large number of voters have agreed to turn dials continuously throughout the debate in order to record their reaction to what a candidate has just said. In theory we have a real-time portrait of the electorate's approval or disdain.
Whoever came up with this idea must have formerly worked for the Fed. It's hard to follow a televised debate when the lower part of the screen is devoted to savagely dueling lines. The distraction becomes the event. You wait for the key words that will really bring that graph to life. "Palin," for example, makes the lines vertical, and shooting off in opposite directions. "Supreme Court," curiously, has much the same effect. One could watch the graph all night in an earnest quest to learn what other people are thinking, but then, before you know it, the candidates are being given two minutes for a final statement, and you wish you'd spent more time looking at the top part of the screen.
Defacing (quite literally) the debate with a constantly changing graph of voters' reactions provides us with a perfect metaphor for the current state of political commentary: It substitutes technology for insight and focuses exclusively on the moment. It's the same with the evening news, which digs no deeper than that day's Dow. Our punditry is trying to tell us what time it is by looking only at the second hand.
It would really be much better to let the voters concentrate on the debate and make up their own minds. The election will be here soon enough.
David Lebedoff is a Minneapolis attorney and author.