October 1st, 2008
04:13 PM ET
14 years ago

Greene: Fear itself

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ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN)- In a tavern/restaurant here that is designed to attract sports fans– it has more than 25 flat-screen television sets mounted on its walls– a fellow on his lunch hour pulled a stool up to the bar at the beginning of this week, glanced at one of the screens that was showing football highlights, and said something to the bartender.

Who immediately picked up a remote-control clicker and, at the customer’s request, changed the channel to one showing live news from Wall Street.

Most of the TV sets in this place on this day were, in fact, tuned to national channels whose reporters were delivering business news. Sports? This week no athletic contest, regardless of how dramatic, can compete with the stomach-cramping ups and downs of the financial markets. Last-second touchdowns and ninth-inning runs-batted-in may be momentarily exciting. But when a ballgame is over, a spectator’s life and future are unchanged. “Everything is riding on this” is a sports-announcer sentence that loses its punch when compared with what an anxious family, and its lifetime savings, have riding on Wall Street economic forces over which they have no control.

Which is why Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, when they debate here tomorrow night– and John McCain and Barack Obama, when they debate in Nashville, Tennessee, next week– will be facing an exponentially different level of scrutiny than they had foreseen as recently as a month ago.

It was going to be tough enough for them, debating in front of tens of millions of people. But there is a set of phrases that are used in the buildup to political debates– “lowered expectations,” and “heightened expectations." Whatever expectations the candidates may have been anticipating, it will be almost impossible for them to live up to the expectations their national jury of citizens will bring to the evenings.

Heightened expectations? Unless the candidates on those stages can magically transform themselves into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the people viewing are likely to feel let down and a little frightened.

Frightened as in “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For that is where the country finds itself now. The just-a-game aspects of the presidential campaign– the Tina Fey/YouTube diversions, and all they symbolize– may be an amusing and pleasant time-killer. But when the candidates step onto the stage– Biden and Palin this week in their only debate before the election, McCain and Obama next week in the second of their three debates– few in their unseen and vast audience are going to be in the mood for lightheartedness.

Fear itself? When the stock market fell by more than 700 points on Monday, and then rose by almost 500 points on Tuesday, both sessions– the rise as well as the plunge– should have been enough to send a nauseating chill through anyone who worries that things are beyond anyone’s command. If a person, and not a financial market, were to exhibit that kind of erratic swing– plummeting to the most cavernous depths and then soaring wildly like seldom before– that person’s friends and loved ones would not be comforted by the day-after rise. They would conclude that the person might have a personality disorder, an illness– that something was terrifyingly wrong.

And they would look as hard as they could for someone who might know how to cure it.

Which is where the pressure on Biden and Palin, on McCain and Obama, comes in. Regardless of what else the candidates are asked to talk about in these next debates, the country is going to be interested in one thing above all others:

Who, if anyone, can lead us out of this?

The nation is going to be looking for a real president, and a real vice president.

The lights on those stages are going to be very bright. Unforgiving.

In the bar where sports fans gather, there were, in the middle of the day, intakes of breath around the room every few minutes, and involuntary vocal bursts of emotion. It wasn’t about a game. The numbers next to the stock charts on the TV screens were crazy, as in insane. And no one seemed to be in charge.

Filed under: Bob Greene • Election Express
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