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Where Weiner Didn't Matter

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WASHINGTON -- If it weren't for the vast, table-flat middle of this country, the American Experiment would have collapsed a long time ago. We would have been torn to pieces by the creative neurosis of the coasts and the radical nostalgia of the Deep South.

I was thinking about that yesterday while driving from St. Louis to Louisville, a straight shot of 260 miles across the Mississippi River and through Illinois and Indiana farm fields dotted with trees and laced with slow-moving streams.

On the radio, Rep. Anthony Weiner was politically breathing his last. His sad saga of self-destruction -- a gripping psychiatric tale, to be sure, but one with almost no intrinsic political import -- had seized the attention of the political-media machinery for weeks.

I, of course, am a cog in that machinery -- at least when in Washington. I'm doing TV here tonight, in fact, about: you guess.

But along I-64, no one cared, and frankly, neither did I. It was all I could do to turn off the BB King channel on the satellite radio in my rented Chevy Malibu (a nice car, BTW, made in Detroit of all places) to plunge back into the insane angst of Weiner World.

AMTRAK Nation's obsession with Weiner and wiener jokes did not and could not travel across the Alleghenies. People in the Midwest I talked to either didn't care, found the whole story too tawdry to look at, or assumed that it was just another example -- a vivid one to be sure -- of what they knew: that Washington is full of weak, dubious characters, and politics is broken.

In O'Fallon, Illinois, a half hour east of St. Louis, I spoke to an annual meeting of the state's city and county managers. These are appointed, not elected, professionals who run their jurisdictions. They are supposed to be above politics, and they generally do great work.

They are also news junkies, and know politics inside-out, if only to avoid getting bogged down in it. They also have a sense of humor. And here I was, a reporter and TV analyst based in Washington. They like political gossip as much as the next junkie.

But the last thing they wanted to talk about on the morning of the day Anthony Weiner was going to resign was... Anthony Weiner.

Dealing as they do with real life in real places, what they wanted talk about was: Medicare, the federal budget, the war in Afghanistan, money in politics, taxes, the Republican presidential race, President Obama's track record as an economic steward.

The same was true elsewhere.

An hour east of O'Fallon I pulled off I-64 to stop into the town of Nashville, Illinois. It's a quiet, moderately prosperous spot with a small country courthouse and a prim little brick movie theater called "The State" straight out of the The Last Picture Show.

David Volz, the longtime editor of the Nashville News (circ. 4,800), has been a journalist all of his life, working at papers in the region for decades since graduating from Southern Illinois University.

He wanted to know whether Washington, D.C. -- as opposed to his own Washington County, Illinois -- was too screwed up to ever be fixed. He wanted to know why no one seemed able to lead, or decide. He wanted to talk about the country's long-term prospects.

We talked about good things: the consolidated high school was in strong shape, and its sports teams were tops; the farms in the area were still mostly family-owned and holding their own. And the bad: criminals had figured out how to use fertilizer chemicals to make meth, which led to a big police crackdown, but meth remained a concern in the most rural parts of the area.

Volz, soft-spoken and with a lot of pens in his shirt pocket, was eager to talk about the state of journalism and the media business.

He wasn't interested in talking about Weiner. No one in his little newsroom was either.

When I got back in the Chevy and turned on the radio, the big-watt stations and Rush Limbaugh were carrying Weiner's farewell. The reporters on the scene in Brooklyn spoke breathlessly. Rush spoke acidly. Weiner sounded frantic and barely under control, with a nasal urgency to proclaim that his public career was not really over. As he spoke, hecklers called him a pervert, told him good riddance and demanded to know the length of his penis.

The whole event, and all the talk surrounding it, sounded like the distant ravings of a strange, alien culture on another planet, if not in another galaxy. It was like the audio version of the Star Wars bar.

Just as the conference ended, I crossed the Wabash River into Indiana. A roadside sign welcomed me to "Lincoln's Boyhood Home."

It seemed a good time to put the blues back on.

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