Bring on the Rubber Chicken
Wednesday, 01 October 2008

GAIL COLLINS

How do you think the besieged financial community felt when the White House announced that George W. Bush was going to address the nation on television Wednesday night?

Hopeful? Terrified?

"We are in the midst of a serious financial crisis," the president said, reading his lines flatly and stolidly, like an announcer delivering a long public-service message about new parking regulations for the holiday season. The whole event had a kind of unreality to it, since Bush has arrived at that unhappy point in American public life when a famous person begins to look like a celebrity impersonator.
 
There is, in a way, a kind of talent required to tell the nation that it's teetering on the brink of disaster in a way that makes the viewers' attention wander. Bush's explanation about how the rescue bill would unclog the lines of credit made the whole thing sound less important than a Liquid-Plumr commercial.
 
But help is on the way! John McCain and Barack Obama are going to join Bush at the White House to work over the details of a rescue bill with Congressional leaders. As Obama put it: "The risk of doing nothing is economic catastrophe."
 
Or, as Sarah Palin told Katie Couric on CBS News last night: "Not necessarily this, as it's been proposed, has to pass or we're gonna find ourselves in another Great Depression. But there has to be action taken, bipartisan effort — Congress not pointing fingers at this point at ... one another, but finding the solution to this, taking action and being serious about the reforms on Wall Street that are needed."
 
So say we all.
 
(Palin was unable to answer questions about McCain's record and relief for homeowners with troubled mortgages. But she did reveal forthrightly that she considers her running mate a "maverick.")
 
About that rescue bill. Passing it is going to be a test of true bipartisanship, which involves both sides deciding that they will share the blame for doing something messy and unpleasant. But first, Congress has to hold hearings until every single member of the House and Senate has had a chance to yell at Henry Paulson. This can be a surprisingly useful exercise. It is much easier to work up sympathy for the rescue plan once you've heard Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky call it "un-American."
 
Meanwhile, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign, taking his ads off the air and going back to Washington to do something leaderlike and bipartisan. This was yet another new McCain, very different from last week's versions, that blamed Obama for the financial meltdown while tossing out rescue plans like a desperate dart player 10 minutes before the bar closes.
 
"Following Sept. 11, our national leaders came together at a time of crisis. We must show that kind of patriotism now," he said.
 
In deference to the current emergency, we will refrain from pointing out that when our national leaders came together following Sept. 11, the results were, all and all, worse than if they had stayed home.
 
Last week, while McCain was desperately reinventing his position every day, Obama was withholding, declining to take a position until the administration plan had jelled. But in the end, it turned out that their ideas were both vaguely similar and similarly vague. On Wednesday, Obama called McCain to propose issuing a joint statement. Then McCain one-upped him by announcing that he wanted to postpone Friday's debate until the economy was rescued. His minions raced off to the news shows to say that the American people were "tired of debates and talking."
 
Since Obama, the Commission on Presidential Debates and the University of Mississippi, which is hosting the debate, all say it will go on, it isn't clear what will happen if McCain fails to show up. An empty chair? A last-minute invitation to Ralph Nader and Bob Barr to drop on by? Once in New York, when Rudy Giuliani boycotted a mayoral debate, one of his opponents spent the night twirling around a rubber chicken and the citizenry enjoyed it quite a lot. This isn't the kind of thing you could imagine Obama doing, but I'd keep my eye on Barr.
 
Obama, meanwhile, had not even promised to show up for the rescue bill vote until McCain made his grand gesture. When reporters asked him on Tuesday whether he was planning to go to Washington, he was noncommittal: "If we get consensus and everybody is popping Champagne, then I'll probably go back to campaign with folks who are having a tough time in Ohio and Michigan."
 
This seemed like an overly casual way to avert economic catastrophe. Since the people of Ohio and Michigan have been visited by a presidential candidate virtually every hour for the last six months, it would seem that they could get by on their own for a day or two.
 
This election is turning into a Goldilocks story. One candidate's too hot, and one's too cool.
Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page.

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