Every now and then I wonder what future generations will make of our notions about what constitutes a Page One story. We live in an era of mind-blowing scientific discovery, virtually none of which ever makes the front page, even as every trivial twist and turn in the rococo political drama has a secure place as the lead story. Today, for example, the New York Times leads with the news that Chris Christie, who after all has been saying for some time now that he won't run for president ... won't run for president. Meanwhile, it relegated to Page 7 the news that the expansion of the universe is not merely the aftereffect of the Big Bang, but also the result of an accelerating force called dark energy.The amount of attention our society pays to ultimately ephemeral political developments might seem silly or myopic. But go read a newspaper from 1850 (or 1950, or 1750). You'll see it's not any different. I'm sure that many people could describe a number the historically significant events of the mid-nineteenth century. I'm equally certain that most of those developments commanded relatively little newspaper ink and page space compared to the vicissitudes of day-to-day politics.
We don't recognize how little has changed in this regard, because we don't realize how much of our political history gets forgotten. One the real joys of historical research is perpetually rediscovering the sheer amount of stuff that happened in the past. For every Watergate, there are dozens upon dozens of minor controversies or deflated crises that never wormed their way into the popular consciousness -- and often, not even into the academic record.
Anyway, it turns out we've always overvalued short-term political drama. That's partly a reflection of the extraordinary difficulty of understanding which events will be important in the future -- in advance, it's impossible to say whether an occurrence will become the stuff of legends or simply be forgotten. And it's partly a reminder that however stupid or juvenile politics may get, the political arena is the beating heart of society, the great public forum where ideas get traded and tested against each other and occasionally dashed to bits. It doesn't matter that most of those ideas end up not mattering. Our obsession with them represents a healthy form of introspection. I couldn't imagine living in a society that concerned itself primarily with the great arc of humanity's progress through the ages. It would be worse than dull; it would be unsettling. Society is a mass of human beings, not an engine for progress, and it's fitting and comforting that society focuses so much on the self-absorbed gossip that interests human beings the most.