NEW YORK--Here on the West Side of Manhattan, on Saturday night, eight hours after the House impeached President Clinton, the citizens around me were crying their eyes out.
Yes, this city is a hotbed of Clinton supporters. Alec Baldwin, the actor who blithely suggested on the Conan O'Brien show that we "stone Henry Hyde to death," lives just up the park. But, no, these New Yorkers weren't crying because their hero will be coupled in the history books with Andrew Johnson and may soon be calling a moving van to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
They were crying because they had just watched Roberto Benigni's magnificent film, "Life Is Beautiful," a sad and touching comedy about a father and son in a Nazi concentration camp.
They dabbed their eyes and walked out of the Paris Theater into the sparkling New York night, humming Offenbach, carrying Bergdorf Goodman shopping bags, kids and sweethearts on their arms. About impeachment, not a word.
Truth is, few Americans seem agitated, one way or the other, about the president's fate. The non-reaction to the vote Saturday is only the latest -- and most dramatic -- manifestation of the growing irrelevance of national politics to our lives.
Instead, more and more, Americans are concerned about their families and friends, about their work and finances, about religion, art and culture -- and, occasionally, about state and local government. In short, the reason few of us are in a dither over the president's imminent and historic trial in the Senate is that it means little to us. Does it really matter whether Clinton serves out his term or is replaced by Al Gore? Of course not.
Investors don't seem to be worried. I've been saying all along that impeachment was unlikely to affect the market, but this is ridiculous! The Dow Jones industrial average rose 180 points in the first hour of trading on Monday and finished ahead 85 points the fourth straight advancing session.
The growing insignificance of national politics and government is a good thing, not a bad thing. John Adams, in a famous 1780 letter to his wife, Abigail, wrote: "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music."
It is the triumph of America's statesmen and warriors that allows us to turn our attention from politics and war and toward family, work, art and other enhancements and diversions.
Two changes, especially, have hastened this development: the fall of the Soviet Union, which removed serious foreign threats, and the robust growth of the private sector, which has spread prosperity across the nation.
The structural changes that made businesses far more efficient, the global nature of markets and the revolution of technology have created an economy so resilient that it simply shrugs off both impeachment and a bombing attack on Iraq.
John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1931 that "the economic problem may be solved . . . within a hundred years." Looks like we're on target.
As the private sector has waxed over the past decade and more, the national government has waned, its growth mainly the result of burgeoning transfers of income rather than huge new programs.
Washington is no longer where the action is. That's the reason that Congress, the executive branch and the bureaucracy attract men and women of a distinctly lower quality than in the past. (Rep. Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, may be a fine fellow, but speaker of the House?!)
It seems that, in order to have anything to do, the feds have to usurp the functions of state and local government. Hiring police officers and teachers and building roads isn't Washington's affair, but politicians need to look busy and win votes.
Then again, the notion that government is all that important (except in wartime) may just be a long-running myth, perpetuated by the chattering classes, especially reporters and editors who would be out of jobs if people caught on.
As usual, Dr. Samuel Johnson had it right 235 years ago:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,
Our own felicity we make or find.
In this holiday season, we discover that felicity in the warmth of our families, in acts of charity, or, often unexpectedly, wrapped in a book, or in a movie theater or museum, looking at a van Gogh or a Jackson Pollock painting.
This is not to say that we should turn our backs on the impeachment debate, or on Social Security reform or the threats in the Persian Gulf. But Americans need a sense of proportion. Remarkably, they are finding it as they absorb the melodramatic events of the past few months with admirable equanimity.
And so, with perfect judgment, they shed their tears, not for a self-centered politician in the White House but for a fictional child rescued from the death camps.