Floating crosses, love babies and hag photos. We're all tabloid now.
Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, politics has gotten not just ugly but unseemly and cruel. If the human appetite for scandal and schadenfreude is satiable, the media haven't gotten the word.
Besides, in a dangerous world of war and terrorism, it's far easier to speculate on sex lives and sensationalize religious belief than it is to evaluate whether jihad is coming to El Paso.
This isn't to blame American voters, but rather the media. Human beings will always look at a roadside accident, but that doesn't mean they want the accident to occur. We're a curious lot and most will look at what's in front of us (the proof is in the porn stats).
Thus, who puts the thing up for observation is the proper target of our attentions. Calling Katie Couric.
Wednesday night, "CBS Evening News" anchor Couric asked the leading 2008 presidential candidates whether voters should trust an adulterer. Why not just ask for a show of hands: How many of you have messed around on your spouse?
Couric's inquisition closely shadowed the tabloid gossip item that John Edwards has a "love baby" with a former campaign worker. Edwards has denied the accusation, as has the mother-to-be, who has named the person she says is the real father. But no matter.
Splash! It's out there. The suggestion, the innuendo, the lingering question. Just as "someone" hoped, no doubt.
Not so long ago, no reputable news organization would touch a tabloid headline. Now, thanks to the Internet, what's out is out and the source seems not to matter. Mainstream media now feel compelled to report what's being reported. (Response to pot-kettle monitors: Cultural commentary requires cultural commentary.)
A few days before Edwards made news, Mike Huckabee's "floating cross" was all the talk. One of Huckabee's ads shows him in front of a bookcase. The intersection of two shelves creates four contiguous right angles, suggestive of a cross, as intersecting shelves are wont to do.
Whether the positioning was intentional or just a divine coincidence is anyone's guess. But the debate, far longer than warranted, was the stuff of alien-seeking tabloids. Is it just me, or was that the Virgin Mary's face imprinted in the wood grain?
Gratuitously cruel was a photograph of a tired-looking Hillary Clinton posted on the Drudge Report and elaborated on by Rush Limbaugh. The photograph was apropos of nothing - no story was linked - and merely ran with the caption: "The Toll of a Campaign."
Hillary, who is 60, showed a few wrinkles, which is not unusual among men and women of that age. Apparently, both Drudge and Limbaugh were gleefully surprised to discover that Hillary is showing signs of maturity that would be characterized as character on a man's face.
Limbaugh framed his remarks as anthropological observation: "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"
Can a woman ever get it right? Too much cleavage one day, too many wrinkles the next. A male friend forwarded the picture to me and I replied: "This picture makes me like her more." My bet is thousands of others felt the same way.
Why? Because we're all aging women, that's why. We're all at war with time. And with calories, one can't help noticing. The seven deadly sins are alive and well in America's garden, for both women and men.
At the risk of sounding like a Christian panderer, we are all fallen. Perhaps that is why the candidates, when asked about adultery, unanimously said that while important, carnal imperfection doesn't necessarily disqualify someone from being president.
As Barack Obama noted: "Some of our greatest presidents haven't always been terrific husbands."
The indignity of the question should embarrass the interviewer, though nothing seems to embarrass anyone anymore. The uglier the stories, the stronger the backlash - and the mudslide has just begun.
If private lives are no longer private - and a woman can't frown in the winter wind - then we can give up on leadership. Only the perfect need apply and the perfect, having made no mistakes, haven't learned anything.
Our jihadist observers - who, incidentally, kill adulterers, take religious belief very seriously and think women shouldn't vote - have learned much.
Such silly people, Americans. Such simple targets.
Such serious business, this election.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.