We didn't always have such short attention spans. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were endless and crowds turned out and stayed to listen. Everything stopped for FDR's fireside chats. They were political, but with a high intellectual content.
The sensational candidate boomlets for Warren Beatty, Donald Trump, Cybill Shepherd, and others are in part attributable to the Sesame Street Syndrome. Children grow up on Sesame Street and demand that getting information be fun. Or as the voice over for the Teletubbies tells it, "Learning and play go hand and hand." The on-the-margin campaigns of the Reform Party are like watching adult versions of Po, Tinky Winky, Laa Laa and Dipsy. "Eh-oh. Ee-ar. Uh-oh. Owwww!"
I once asked a child I knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was quick to respond: "I want to be a celebrity."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means everybody knows who you are."
"Why is everybody going to know who you are?"
"I haven't decided that yet."
The child should grow up to be a famous pundit. Or a candidate for president. It used to be that candidates for president could have careers outside of politics, but they had to be serious men.
The carnival aspects of politics were merely a side show. The center ring required performers with discipline, dignity and competence. As historian Michael Beschloss points out in the New York Times, if Donald Trump wanted to explore a candidacy in 1932, he would have had columnist Walter Lippmann tell the world what he thought, but today he needs only go on "Larry King Live" to say nothing much: "Television and the Web have become the equalizers between professional politicians and those famous people who think it might be cool to be president."
That leaves George Will asking Jesse Ventura, the governor of Minnesota, about his remarks about reincarnation to Playboy magazine - he said he'd like to come back as a size 38 double-D brassiere. Can anyone imagine Walter Lippmann reduced to asking such a question and being lectured to by a governor for lacking a sense of humor?
The flashy performances of politicians affect how serious candidates act, too. Al Gore has a new costume - cowboy boots and brightly colored shirts. …