It’s really fascinating to be reminded that in 2000 the biggest complaint of disaffected voters was that there was really no way to tell the two candidates apart. Nader’s popularity was based on this idea that they were the same. You could read very respectable newspapers, virtually every newspaper in the country had at least somebody or other who was more or less saying this as a regular refrain — eh, these guys, one way or the other, they’re both moderate centrists, etc. Big mistake. But there was this feeling also that people liked it that way, there was this idea that the center of American politics should be a matter of gray shading.

Well, this time around you have two campaigns that are really painting a strong contrast, and that’s interesting. And I think that affects a lot how one covers it. The partisanship is more or less inescapable, the extent to which a kind of toxic, inflamed, extreme set of positions is often there, the way that these wedge issues work alongside really big issues. American campaigns have just an incredible amount of frivolity about them. Even in a serious time like this there is a lot of nonsense and diversion. You’ve got all this stuff —whether it’s this silliness of Teresa Heinz’s “shove it” remark … I’m trying to think of five of the petty fusses that we’ve had this time around. Does Kerry or does Kerry not drive an SUV. Who cares? It’s stupid of him to say it’s his family’s car or something, but is this an important question when the question is whether or not we were taken to war on false pretenses? And how come this Abu Ghraib story has disappeared? Or the way that a wedge issue like gay marriage got sort of thrown out there for no apparent reason except to try to create some political capital out of it … These are interesting issues but they often get lost in this fog of the day-to-day parade of the campaign. I guess one of the things that is challenging to me is to try to figure out how to look at those issues in ways that still have some drama, narrative and actually something to discuss.

It’s tough because there really is a lot of white noise. And the white noise is not the press’ fault alone, the press gets caught up in it, but it’s generated often by the campaigns trying to avoid the more complicated nitty gritty of things. Then there’s always this kind of presumption of the incredible stupidity of American voter, which I don’t think is fair by the way — it’s a fault of the press. There’s always this sort of notion that people aren’t paying attention, they won’t pay attention. Of course people won’t pay attention if you give them stupid reporting. It seems to be a very strange equation: people aren’t interested in foreign policy, therefore we will talk about it in extremely simplistic, boiled-down ways that make it absolutely useless to pay attention. And then people say, “see, they don’t want to hear about it.” There’s an assumption about where America’s attention is. When you go out on the campaign trail, whether they’re highly informed or modestly informed, people are really, really engaged and wanting to talk about foreign policy this time. Foreign policy, war making, how to respond to the age of terror as it’s called, all these things are rather front and center on the minds of not just guys at the Council on Foreign Relations, but the guys in swing states and in blue collar jobs. That’s interesting.

LCB: With 15,000 media types swarming all over the FleetCenter and everything so carefully choreographed and scripted, how do you find anything original and interesting to write about [at the Democratic National Convention]?

PG: I’m not even trying. I’m not writing this week — I’m lucky I don’t have to write from the convention directly. I’m using it as a place to pick up some threads for some other stuff.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.