AUSTIN, Texas -- A hearty round of congratulations to all concerned in this year's presidential race for three weeks of politics at their finest.

First, we had the great debate over whether the vice president smooched his wife for too long at the Democratic National Convention -- a matter of burning moment to the republic -- complete with exegesis of the smacker as to whether or not he frenched her. Comparison of the candidates' economic plans was shelved for that week.

Then we had the Debate on Debates, a subject gripping the nation and affecting the very lives of all who dwell herein, with the referees in solid concert that W. Bush's ploy to make Al Gore look slippery was too cute by half and only succeeded in underlining Bush's gutlessness. Consideration of global warming was postponed.

Next we had a reprise of that old favorite, the Open Mike Gotcha, with Bush calling a New York Times reporter a major-league casserole. Although it can be argued that Bush's failure to apologize was major-league tacky, the matter necessitated shelving all questions related to economic globalization.

Then we spent several days on the grave question of whether a Bush ad deliberately held the word "RATS" on screen -- a matter further complicated by Bush's repeated references to the technique as "subliminable," raising the even more weighty question of whether the man suffers from dyslexia or just the consequences of growing up with a father who is not fluent in English. Discussion of the income gap was necessarily moved aside, although the median housing wage is now $11.08 an hour to afford a two-bedroom unit -- more than twice the minimum wage in 29 states.

We spent a few days on who sent whom whose debate preparation tapes, with appropriate speculation on scenarios of which John LeCarre would be proud. Minor attention to Dick Cheney's failure to vote 14 out of 16 times in Dallas also pre-empted consideration of what to do about the 44 million Americans who have no health insurance.

We would then have paid serious attention to how to improve the public schools, except that we had to pause to report the percentage decline in the number of jokes about Gore's switch to earth tones by late-night television comedians.

The media are now engaged in a round of mourning over the incurable frivolity of the American public, which is apparently planning to spend the next two weeks watching the Sydney Olympics under the impression that not much of importance is being discussed in the presidential campaign. And may I say that it is darn difficult to be part of a serious effort to educate and inform the people when we in the media are stuck with such a piffle-headed public.

Far be it from me to imply that your alert watchdogs of the press are missing anything, but you might want to know about a couple of recent events in Portland, Ore. Gov. G.W. Bush held a public rally there attended by 2,300 citizens and a huge media pack, which gave said rally the national coverage that it so fully deserved.

Two days later, the Green Party rented a coliseum that seats 10,000 people and charged them $7 a head to hear Ralph Nader, with droves of people being turned away for lack of room. This event received no coverage whatever beyond Portland, despite the fact that the crowd was so enthusiastic that the normally reserved Nader gave a speech that had the crowd standing and screaming while he pumped his arms like a champ. (One local paper specified "his spindly arms.")

As anyone in the media will explain to you, the reason we do not give more coverage to Nader is because he is not Moving in the Polls. The reason he is not Moving in the Polls is because he gets no media coverage. Do you want the chicken or the egg?

I know that this textbook campaign so splendidly illustrating the beauties of democracy (and by George, if we're not a role model for the rest of the world, who is?) makes us all proud to be part of a nation where tens of millions of dollars in corporate special-interest contributions decides the outcome of elections. But has it ever occurred to you that we might be missing something here?

I realize that this is nothing compared to the importance of the flap over the phone call that Gore did not make in 1995, and certainly not to Dubya's latest gaffe, but ... could it be that part of what we're missing is ... an opportunity?

And if this exercise is as puerile and sterile as it appears, what can we do? Bad enough that our political system is corrupt -- must it also be this vapid? We could try to change the campaign finance laws or to find a Nader speech on C-SPAN. But maybe the Olympics will be good.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.