Can we agree that there is something very poisonous and wrong with the state of the union when our finest leaders choose not to seek the highest office in our land, even at a time of danger and crisis, while 70 percent of the nation has lost all confidence in virtually everyone in Washington?

I met Norman Mailer once. When I was a very young man I was with a group of people he knew when he strutted into the room and invited his friends to join him for a beverage. I got swept with the crowd to the bar, too young to legally drink, and too drunk to remember much of what was said.

I do remember one thing. I paraphrase for lack of clarity due to intoxication, but this is a fair representation of what he said:

The job of the novelist and the journalist is not to kiss the ass of the establishment, or be a simple partisan of the right or left (though Mailer called himself at various times "a man of the left" or a "left conservative"). The job of the novelist and journalist is to attack, provoke, to get to the heart of the matter, to paint a portrait of what is really happening in a way that gives the reader whole new insights into the complexities and truths of the matter.

One can sweep aside much of the pitter-patter of the cable news and insider blogs as the clash of irrelevance and nonentity, the mere regurgitation of dinner party talk, insider lunches, courtier chatter and politician spin debating in their common out-of-touchness with what is really happening in America.

The low point in our times was how falsehood and lies about pre-war Iraq came to saturate the front page of The New York Times, the editorial page of The Washington Post and the floor of the United States Congress. The high point was when Stephen Colbert made himself unwelcome at the White House Correspondents dinner, with the legacy that poor Rich Little was invited the next year, to tell sad and inoffensive jokes about Richard Milhous Nixon.

We now have presidential debates that are the idiot's delight, where some of the most qualified candidates are barely invited to speak, where candidates are given 90 seconds to discuss World War III, where the candidates and voters are insulted with idiot questions such as:

Will you guarantee that Iran will never have nuclear weapons (a guarantee that can be enforced only by the willingness of the candidate to hypothetically guarantee a thermonuclear attack against Iran, because that is the only way to 100 percent guarantee the undesirable result)?

(But these debates are not about the true complexities of the world, they are about 90 seconds of junk food, spoon-fed by consultants, offering bromides to create or alleviate fear, depending on the candidate's motive, offered by "reporters" who view their job as to elicit headlines or score points with the politicians who feed them questions, or look clever, rather than educate or inform the citizenry about who should lead the free world at a time of crisis and danger.)

In last night's debate, a campaign that has had virtually zero to say about Pakistan, which may be our greatest security threat (except for Joe Biden, who often does not receive permission to speak during the debates, and who appears to be running for secretary of State), the great contribution of last night's debate was to elicit
from two candidates, including the Democratic front-runner, that sometimes our great nation must sacrifice human rights to protect our security (a view that is shameful and false because it misses the heart of the soul of the matter we should be debating), which cannot be spoken in 90 seconds of bromides written by consultants uttered in sound bites, which is this:

The heart of what has gone wrong is our disrespect and devaluation of our democratic values, procedures, discourses and debates at home, which have led to gravely unwise disasters and our failure to remember our
highest values abroad, which has led to policies such as torture, most recently enabled by a Democratic Senate, that create enemies and terrorists and loses the battle of ideas, which by far is the most important battle we must win, and are now losing.

Digression: Memo to Joe Biden: If you really want to run for president and not secretary of State, the next time you are not allowed to speak in a presidential debate because the powers do not believe you are an important enough candidate, and the others are speaking triteness in 30 seconds, walk off the stage in protest and give a press conference outside that speaks truth and substance and depth about what really needs to be said, and is not being said, in what passes for our national debates.

Regarding Al Gore, having been an advocate, supporter, friend, whatever, for a very long time, I reserve the right to say this:

It is a damn shame that he feels he has more important things to do than be president of the United States and leader of the free world with our country engulfed in divisiveness and our world threatened with a planetary emergency that will not be solved by prizes, awards or venture capital funds.

Those who believe in him the most are reduced to being virtual beggars (a position I will not take, which is why I have simply written him off for 2008 after my best efforts have come to naught).

In my view, no candidate was even remotely as right for the times as Gore in 2008, and no result is more tragic for the times than the fact that he concluded he was above participating in American democracy in the one way that matters the most.

Gore can win the Oscar, the Emmy, the Nobel and win every award except being named the manager of the New York Yankees, and join every venture capital fund and private equity fund and make important documentary films, but the planetary emergency, the crisis of $100 oil, the evils and dangers of this, are about
power and powerful forces that create these dangers and corruptions. Those powerful forces are now laughing and mocking and feeling great relief that one more threat to their power structure, a president who understands the danger and solution the most, has chosen to watch from outside the one arena that truly matters.

How sad and symbolic: for us, for him, for our democracy.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is a more complicated story because he is trapped in a political party that he could have led to renewed greatness but which treats him as a prophet without honor.

Like Al Gore for the Democrats, being right does not reap the great rewards in our current system, which has created the tragedies we watch every night on the network news.

Chuck Hagel is one of the great senators who walks the floor of that chamber, which is no longer what the Founding Fathers intended, which is not nearly what it used to be, a man of enormous credibility, patriotism and respect from both sides of the aisle, who has an extraordinary reach of admiration from those who opposed the Iraq war the strongest to those who have served our country the most bravely, who view him, correctly, as a great and true champion of active-duty troops and American veterans.

Gore and Hagel may well have greatness in their futures, but what is sad for our democracy is the role they play, and do not play, in our present. Something about our democratic system pushes our best people out of it,
depriving our citizens of the best men and women who should lead our country, depriving our world of the best leadership America can provide, depriving our troops of the wisest and most noble commanders in chief, who choose not to compete in the arena to be commander in chief.

We leave the arena to those who hunger for power the most, who raise the most money, who have the most consultants, who utter the trite and insignificant platitudes and bromides in debates that do not equal what our best young men and women can say in their civics classes in school.

Imagine what could have been, with an October debate about the future of America with Al Gore representing the Democrats and Chuck Hagel representing the Repubicans (or Independents, a subject for another day).

In 1960 Norman Mailer wrote one of the great political essays in the history of freedom, titled "Superman Comes To The Supermarket," which was about John Fitzgerald Kennedy at the time of the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

Mailer wrote about the limits of American politics and the aspirations for greatness that are the precondition for transcending those limits and making America what it can be, what it should be, what it has been before, what it must be again.

Mailer was right about JFK, and right about America, and right about the aspiration for heroism in politics, which is the height of true Americanism and has led us to the highest heights in our nation's history.

Perhaps one of our candidates will rise to those heights, and then again, perhaps not.

We are leaving a lot to chance, and America deserves far better than what our politics are giving her, and if past is prologue, we are sailing farther into very dangerous waters.