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Powdered wigs, pinging devices soothe me

December 18, 2005|Thomas de Zengotita | Thomas de Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated."

I FIRST NOTICED this trend in 2001 -- it was before 9/11, as I recall. I was driving alone for long distances that summer and Rush Limbaugh and his radio progeny were beginning to wear thin. Some thoughtful friend reminded me that technology now made it possible to enjoy an "improving book," as they used to say, and drive at the same time. So I got one on tape from a Barnes & Noble in some mall in Maine. It happened to be about John Adams, the one by David McCullough.

I enjoyed it in some way I couldn't quite account for. So I listened to several more, and I read several more after that, before I drifted on to other entertainments. At the time, I didn't notice how easy it was to pick out books that offered exactly the same kind of enjoyment, partly because there were so many of them all of a sudden, and partly because the people producing them had carved out a niche for them and knew exactly how to sustain it.

Call it the "How Great Men Once Managed Great Events" genre.

A certain type of not-so-great man identifies with Heroes of History the same way a certain type of not-so-adventurous man identifies with Jack Aubrey on the far side of the world or Philip Marlowe in the mean streets of Bay City (I haven't accessed the demographics, but you wanna bet?). The difference is that when you identify with, say, Thomas Jefferson, you get to tell yourself that you are engaged in serious study rather than frivolous fantasy.

There's always been a market for middlebrow history of this kind, of course. But there's a particular feel, a distinguishing quality to this genre nowadays -- McCullough's "1776," Joseph Ellis on "His Excellency: George Washington" and "Founding Brothers," Ron Chernow on "Alexander Hamilton," Walter Isaacson on "Benjamin Franklin," Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" -- the list goes on and on. There's been a small-scale avalanche of these books in the last few years. But just what that quality is I could not say exactly -- until one night, some weeks ago, it came to me.

I was a watching a "West Wing" episode, a rerun I think. Josiah Bartlet and his crew were coping with some barely containable something of world historical importance in the midst of a chaos of sometimes comic, sometimes tragic small-scale distractions and personal foibles. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was getting the same kind of pleasure from a frenetically paced TV show that I once got from the borderline ponderous prose of "heroes of history" hagiography. On the one hand, a slang-saturated, hyper-contemporary setting crammed with devices buzzing and blinking so relentlessly that no one seems to have time to even sit down, let alone think. On the other hand, powdered wigs and philosophic discourse, quill pens and parchment scrolls, endless diary entries and reams of gracious correspondence. But the message was the same. And it was a message I needed desperately to believe at some unconscious level, and could believe, sort of, as long as I didn't articulate it.

Which I am now doing.

And that message is: Don't worry, everything will be all right.

Historical narratives convey that message by reminding us that, in distant times and places, seemingly intractable crises loomed, the future was radically uncertain, events overwhelmed policies, and leaders now revered were doubted and denounced in those dark hours, long ago. But they persevered. And somehow, in their wisdom, and by the grace of God or fortune (take your pick), they saw us through and things were settled. That's what the underlying tone of all those narratives promises. Heroes of history will arise to settle the affairs of nations, a new day will dawn and everything will be all right.

And it's the same with "The West Wing." Of course, in contemporary contexts, matters must remain unsettled. But, by golly, how those folks can cope. Somehow, they manage, and you know they will keep on managing, and you will see them managing, hour after hour -- that's the guarantee made by that grand music rising above the opening credits and by those ordinary faces, ennobled by their mission one and all, swirling into focus, registering indefatigable determination across a screen that's drenched with images of the venues of our national power. Like the heroes of history before them, they will manage.

Heck, you can tell that from the cool way they use their cellphones and deliver their spot-on timely wisecracks. We are safe with them.

Except, of course, we're not.

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