Sometime late in 2002, I was in a doctor’s office in Los Angeles and on the stack of old magazines was a copy of Time magazine, where I was working as a freelancer at the time.
On it was a stern picture of the then-Secretary of State with the headline: “Where have you gone Colin Powell? The Secretary of State isn’t the foreign policy general everyone thought he’d be. What’s holding him back?”
Inside were a couple of easy-breezy stories: “China’s Bumper Crop of Pandas.” “New Ritalin Ad Blitz Makes Parents Jumpy.”
As always, the “Notebook” section offered a snarky take on the “winners” and “losers” of the week.
Among the winners that week was Gray Davis: “Calif. Gov finally takes stand on Gary Condit; saves two salaries when Condit kids quit his staff.”
Among the losers, Rodney King: “Famed motorist hit with drug charge. A $3.8 mil settlement is a terrible thing to waste.”
It all struck me as almost sweetly banal, an artifact of a forgotten era. The date on the issue? Sept. 10, 2001. It was the issue on many newsstands the day of the terrorist attacks.
Looking back at this issue now, 16 years later, it seems even more remote.
It’s almost hard to remember how sleepy that summer had been. The first months of the Bush administration had been rather uneventful, dominated by a long, drawn out consideration of whether the new president would reverse the Clinton-era rules on stem-cell research. On TV, “Lost” and “The Amazing Race” were the runaway hits.
The only real excitement most of that summer was the did-he-or-didn’t-he drama around Rep. Gary Condit, a once-rising congressional star who may or may not have had a hand in the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy, a young lady from his district with whom, it appears, he was carrying on an affair.
A few weeks ago, I happened to meet a visiting tourist in Sonoma County who had been a senior city official in Modesto, where much of the Condit-Levy drama played out and where I had spent several weeks reporting on the affair for Time. We compared notes on that weird time, as a mob of reporters from across the world descended on the otherwise quiet, rural town and proceeded to dissect every fact, every rumor, every lurid fantasy they could find about Condit and his young lover.
The more we talked about it, the weirder it got for both of us, until finally we just stopped and switched the topic.
On the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, newscasters kept repeating some variation of the phrase “This day will change everything.” My mind refused to accept that. I remember distinctly thinking several times “It’s not as bad as it looks; things won’t change that much.”
I was wrong.
Sept. 11 may not have changed everything, but it changed enough that those summer days of 2001 seem like another life. It changed enough that that Sept. 10 edition of Time now seems like some goofy artifact from a more innocent time.
On the 16th anniversary of Sept. 10, 2001, it’s worth remembering that the things we think are important today can seem tragically out of date just 24 hours later.