John & Sarah in St. Paul

St. Paul, Minnesota

As our communication system speeds up, driven by the power of cable television and the Internet, news cycles take on characteristics of a tropical storm: swirling centripetal winds, sudden shifts of intensity and direction, a tendency to darken the horizon and blot out memory, or awareness of anything else that might be happening. Participants—news purveyors and consumers—are always in the eye of the storm. So there was rough justice in the arrival of Gustav, a real hurricane, to rain on a Republican National Convention taking place under sunny skies 1,300 or so miles up the Mississippi. Real as it was, for news junkies, Gustav was only the fourth media storm in a week.

First came Media Storms Hillary and Invesco Field, packing plenty of wind and questions momentous-seeming enough to build suspense. (A media storm requires an open-ended question to keep anchors talking and bloggers blogging.) Would Mrs. Clinton’s speech for Barack Obama at the Democratic convention be sufficiently tinged with insincerity to alienate her supporters from the candidate? Would his acceptance speech before a crowd of 84,000 on a football field, in front of a set that might have been borrowed from the TV show The West Wing, make him seem less presidential?

“Not really” was the answer in each case but before it could register the questions had been shoved aside as a new one loomed: Could a caribou-hunting mother of five, with creationist leanings and membership in a church that preaches that these are “the last days” and that God has chosen as a “refuge” the state of which she’s a first-term governor—and maybe also chosen her to play that role—put enough verve into John S. McCain’s campaign to redeem, at a single stroke, his reputation for independence and his sorry standing with social conservatives? A perfect media question that had been daringly sent aloft by McCain himself, instantly eclipsing Obama’s big night. The first episode of Media Storm Sarah lasted less then forty-eight hours, then Gustav came along.

The real storm passed without furnishing the images of private greed and public lassitude that made Katrina an enduring symbol of the Bush administration’s aloofness and incompetence. George W. Bush’s party, spared the embarrassment of having to welcome him and his vice president to its convention, made a solemn show of transforming itself for one evening into a social service organization, filling its party hats with contributions for the hurricane’s victims. Gradually then, the Gulf was left to dry out and the political surge resumed, only now the story line John McCain and his advisers had scripted had suddenly changed on them. From a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the Alaska governor as heroine—a feisty battler against corruption in her own party, in McCain’s reformist image—it threatened to turn into Juno, last year’s sentimental comedy about a pregnant high school student who cheerfully decides to have her baby.

That the seventy-two-year-old’s choice of Sarah Palin as a possible successor had been deeply…

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