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TERROR JOLTED US FROM TRIVIAL PURSUITS

The summer of Chandra came to an explosive end. Her paramour is now consigned to his place as an obscure member of Congress whose tawdriness no longer titillates and whose future is laughably irrelevant.

Already it is a cliche that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed everything.

The country rallies in a way not known since Pearl Harbor. The cable stations, so long in search of villains and victims, turn now to real heroes in our midst: the firefighters and police and emergency medical workers who still refuse to give up.

It is an hour of national resolve. But it is worth dwelling on the age of trivia that preceded it.

The B-movie that starred California Rep. Gary Condit and the missing intern, Chandra Levy, was a sequel. What came before was more than a decade of politicians and the media covering them chasing the likes of Bill Clinton's sexual conquests and debating such profound matters of state as whether the president brought trinkets from Martha's Vineyard to his own young plaything. There was a partisan impeachment of a president even though he'd not lost the people's support - indeed, each and every poll showed there was no public will to remove Clinton from office and he was, therefore, destined to stay. The show-trial proceeded nonetheless.

The partisan screech that masqueraded as news concerned itself with one banality after another: Newt Gingrich's book deal or Clinton's office rent; Hillary's hair and Al Gore's beard; the collegiate carousing of the Bush daughters.

This passed for legitimate public debate. Near the end of last year, almost a third of Americans told pollsters for the Pew Center for the People and the Press that they got their political "news" from Jay Leno and David Letterman. By December, a majority of Americans was willing to accept this as a premise of our democracy: That the presidential election was a tie, and so it was just fine to settle it based on who had the best lawyers, the most Supreme Court justices in his corner - and the winning spin.

This diminished national imagination could not conceive of the event that now brings the possibility of redemption.

"This has raised us up," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "We're on a plane now that we rarely occupy."

It is too soon to tell whether the people lining up to give blood and the college students who have whispered to professors a willingness to be drafted are the vanguard of a new generation of political activists who will have as their calling something greater than tactical advantage. The last one formed after another transformative event, the inauguration and then assassination of John F. Kennedy.

It is possible this moment will, at long last, end the cynicism about government and the deliberate debasement of those who work to make it work. This could be an ennobling call to public service - or at least to the voting booth. But it could also turn out that patriotic ardor cools once it is believed the perpetrators are vanquished.

We have, after all, a couple of generations of Americans who have been told - by their own political leaders, not least the current president - that government is a beast to be tamed, not trusted. That individuals, acting by and for themselves, are the true agents of freedom.

Americans had come to measure leadership in terms of political success at small things. We developed the habit of punishing those who took risks and failed at something large. President George W. Bush will see if we've really changed.

Americans now can see the definition of leadership in Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who did not hesitate before plunging into the challenge of our lives. They see that when disaster struck, there was no place to turn but to each other and, yes, to government. Government fights the flames, rescues the wounded, runs the subways, helps get Wall Street ready, secures the airports. It is government that will fight, eventually, the elusive enemy.

The enormity of a terrorist attack has finally stopped our descent into civic sloth. If, after a brief rally, we fall back, we forfeit our bragging rights as the world's greatest and most mature democracy.

Newsday

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