A funny thing happened on the way to writing about how disconnected most Americans are from their politicians and their media.
There was this headline stretched across the top of Page 1 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Tuesday:
"Would Prozac have helped George Bailey? WU professor says probably not."
Feeling pretty stupid that I didn't recall who George Bailey was -- and overlooking the little picture of Jimmy Stewart that should have given it away -- I was reminded on page C1 that Bailey was indeed the hero of It's a Wonderful Life, the famed classic film that most of us have enjoyed much more than once.
Somehow, I hadn't been prepared for the top "news" teaser on Page 1 to involve a fictional character. I especially hadn't been prepared for it to involve the hypothetical musings of a local professor about how today's anti-depressant wonder drug might have helped that character, who didn't really exist more than a half-century ago.
Still, this is the holiday season, and It's a Wonderful Life captures the meaning of that season as well as it has ever been captured. So I hope it's not too cynical to ask, on the eve of Christmas:
Just what are these people thinking?
Two days before, the Sunday Post-Dispatch -- like most other dailies across the nation -- had treated the impeachment of Bill Clinton as an earth-stopping moment in history, with commemorative-issue coverage traditionally reserved for assassinations, outbreak of world war or the establishment of a new home-run record.
Indeed, the Post's 2-and-three-quarter-inch "IMPEACHED" headline and its entire front-page coverage received its own coverage in Tuesday's New York Times, which noted "no other major papers took the route of the Post Dispatch." Also, it seems the paper's decision to lead with a narrative essay prompted "strong objections from all five members of the newspaper's Washington bureau."
Who says St. Louis never gets national attention? Film at 10.
The trouble with treating impeachment as an earth-stopping moment is that the earth didn't stop, or even slow down significantly. People may or may not have slowed down in the shopping malls if they passed a TV monitor, but I doubt many merchants suffered heavily because people stayed home glued to their sets to watch politicians out-huff one another in the nation's capital.
No doubt the first impeachment since Andrew Johnson was a historic event, but whether it was especially consequential -- outside the Beltway -- remains to be seen. If Clinton stays around for the remainder of his term, the dailies' breathless impeachment specials will mostly commemorate a time that both the media and the political class truly lost touch with the folks back home.
Maybe if the papers had mused about how George Bailey would have viewed today's impeachment hunt, people would have taken notice. Certainly readers would have at least perked up briefly for a headline asking, "Would Prozac have helped Bill Clinton? WU professor says probably not."
But this didn't happen. And last Saturday, most people mainly shopped.
For now, it doesn't appear that the Great Houdini of American politics will be zipping up his White House tenure anytime soon. Unless a sizeable number of Democrats bolt from Clinton -- 12 even if all the Republicans vote for impeachment -- it doesn't appear that the partisan witch-hunt will get its witch.
Ironically, the Republicans' only glimmer of a hope rests with Democrats' political aspirations. Senate Democrats could decide that shedding Clinton -- and thus elevating Al Gore to nearly two years of incumbency -- would be the smartest electoral strategy for the year 2000.
Giving Gore a jump-start as president would make far more sense strategically than having him traipse around the campaign trail apologizing for his role as Clinton's Ed McMahon. He might even get fewer Buddhist-temple questions.
Clinton, whom many old-guard Democrats have always disdained, could return to private life to return the life to his privates. And the Republicans would likely be hoisted on their own petard for having run him out of Dodge with his 70-plus approval ratings flapping in the breeze.
It would serve the hypocrites right, but it's not likely to happen, because the Democrats also know that Clinton's early exit would also be a monstrous victory for the Religious Right, for Rush Limbaugh and disciples and for what many Congressional hypocrites now are calling "sexual McCarthyism."
They weren't using that phrase during the impeachment process, even though it was all about sex and all about the vendetta of a partisan (Kenneth Starr) who is the second coming of Sen. Joe McCarthy. No, sexual McCarthyism is what you get when the likes of Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth and Henry Hyde and, now, Bob Livingston -- Republicans all -- get outed for their own out-of-wedlock sexual exploits.
It is a form of poetic justice that these standard-bearers of the party of "family values" have been toppled from their holy perches -- all the while passing stiff-lipped judgment on Clinton's pathos -- but in the final analysis, they shouldn't have been publicly flogged, either. These people's private lives aren't the public's business, and poll after poll shows that the public knows it.
The obvious media response is that sex sells -- just look at the ratings -- and that turning Congress into a Jerry Springer set hawks a lot more soap than policy wonks droning about Social Security fixes. But the ultimate sex-and-politics story -- the "historic" impeachment of Clinton -- left Americans of all stripes rolling their eyes.
In the final analysis, the media's obsession with the politicians' obsession about Clinton is as out of touch with reality as Livingston's protestations that his marital infidelity ("straying," he called it) was mitigated by the fact that he didn't do it with a staff member and that he didn't lie about it under oath.
No wonder Americans are disconnected in growing numbers. No wonder the media is flailing away like a drowning swimmer.
Oh well, back to the shopping. Hope your holidays turn out as well as George Bailey's did.
With or without the Prozac.