Having just spent three weeks in the news vacuum of a cross-country move, I've got a renewed appreciation for how easy it is to not know very much about what's going on.
It turns out that you don't have to read a newspaper every morning, let alone dissect everything printed therein with the help of a dozen political blogs. You can just listen to Rush Limbaugh -- how else to explain the "What happens in G'itmo, stays in G'itmo" T-shirt I spotted on a fellow at Yellowstone? -- or simply tune it all out entirely.
For all of the media out there -- for all of the ways in which media gets delivered to us now -- the default is that the real-news switch remains turned off unless we choose to turn it on. Yes, it's hard not to hear about Barry Bonds' home runs or the crash of a couple of news helicopters. These things seep through somehow. But would I know anything of Alberto Gonzales' prevarications before Congress or the Republicans' obstructionism on Iraq if I hadn't gone out of my way to learn about them while I was off? I can't imagine how.
And even if you try to get yourself informed now and then, there's no guarantee you're actually going to learn anything. I caught half an hour of "Good Morning America" one morning at the gym at the Hampton Inn in Rock Springs, Wyo. What I saw: about 25 minutes of commercials and promos, three minutes of "If it bleeds, it leads" headline news, and about two minutes of a much-promoted "Town Hall Meeting" with John Edwards. The only question I remember from that session: How does Edwards respond to his daughter's claim that he is not, in fact, "sexy"?
So here I am in Washington. I've arrived, I'm fully wired, and in the hours and days and weeks and months ahead, I'll be knee-deep in the details all over again. The guy I met at a fireworks shop in Pennsylvania -- the one who kept pronouncing "bin Laden" as "bin Loggin'" -- may not know or care about the contours of the president's Terrorist Surveillance Program or how they may or may not provide a defense for the otherwise indefensible attorney general. I do, and I know that the people who read War Room do, too.
But as I return from three weeks off -- as I turn my attention, increasingly, to the 2008 presidential election -- I'll try to remember the lesson of the past three weeks: In a world of forests and trees, we spend a lot of time here studying individual twigs and leaves. But when Election Day 2008 rolls around, the folks who have only a vague sense that there's something green over there -- the 41 percent who still think that Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11, or the 11 percent who think we've actually caught ol' bin Loggin' -- get a vote that counts just as much as anyone else's. That explains a lot about how we find ourselves where we do now, and I hope it will inform the work I will be doing from Washington.