In his column in yesterday's New York Times, Frank Rich had an interesting take on the "balloon boy" saga which dominated the news -- particularly the electronic news -- for most of last week. Hearkening back to the Great Depression, he recalled the desperate dance marathoners in Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the aimless deadenders in Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, and the pathetic and nameless Curley's wife in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men -- all looking for wealth and stardom in the barren, jobless desert which was America in the 1930's.
Rich suggested that Richard Heene's callous exploitation of his children called more for sympathy than outrage. Having made a mercurial impression on the reality television show, Wife Swap, Heene was attempting to pilot his own show into the company of Dancing with the Stars, Survivor and Dr. Phil. The whole saga, Rich maintained, was emblematic of the times. "A freelance construction worker and handyman, [Heene] couldn't find much employment in an economy where construction is frozen and homeowners are more worried about losing their homes than fixing them." The media maelstrom which he pinned his dreams on "is among the country's last dependable job engines." It has found ratings gold in entertainment masquerading as news; and it has exalted the trivial and trivialized what has been -- or will be -- historically significant.
Understanding Heene's desperation does not excuse his neglect of his parental responsibilities. And he will probably experience the lash of the law. But, Rich wrote, "the ultimate joke is that Heene, unlike the reckless gamblers at the top of Citigroup and AIG, may be the one with a serious shot at ending up behind bars."
If that prediction turns out to be true -- and if the millions of unemployed are left to drift into bored non-productivity -- the result could be catastrophic. Those who chart public policy would do well reread the ending of The Day of the Locust.