The words "this is a test," followed by a harsh buzzing sound, are familiar to anyone whose TV viewing has been interrupted by the Emergency Broadcast System. In recent days, the American political and economic systems have been tested, too. Let's just say the Emergency Broadcast System works better and is less annoying.
The meltdown on Wall Street, averted for now by the gigantic taxpayer-funded bailout in the works, revealed frightening weaknesses in our financial readiness. Equally scary was what the crisis revealed about Barack Obama and John McCain.
Both flunked the sudden stress test the crisis imposed. Neither looked ready to be President.
They were bailed out, too. The rescue package took them off the hook of actually having to come up with solutions or even responsible ideas.
Yogi Berra's line that you can learn a lot by watching certainly proved to be true. Watching Wall Street panic and the leaders of Congress turn into fraidy-cats who only wanted to go home was bad enough.
Seeing the next President, whomever we elect, pretend to be bold and certain when neither had a clue was terrifying.
Grace under pressure was missing-in-action. Neither Obama nor McCain rose to the challenge history presented to them. Because the crisis hadn't been poll-tested or posted safely on the TelePrompTer, they didn't know what to say except that everything was bad and excuse me while I open a can of outrage.
The one thing they dare not say was the truth: that ordinary Americans are also guilty of overindulging in the credit binge. That might cost them votes.
McCain suggested a commission. Obama promised a meeting. And they blamed each other. Thanks for nothing.
Each made a lame claim that I-told-you-so, as though they had actually seen it coming. Hogwash. They had no clue before and no solution after. Nor did their armies of advisers and experts.
It was 9/11 all over again in that nobody connected the dots until the damage was done. George Bush was no better. Until he deigned to appear Thursday for a two-minute speech - no questions allowed - I assumed he was hiding with Vice President Cheney in an undisclosed bunker.
It was a shockingly poor performance by Obama and McCain. It revealed not only their slender understandings of the economy, but also the shallowness of the campaigns they are running.
With the crisis building for more than a year, neither was prepared when it blew open. It's a good bet they're not ready for the next emergency either, whatever it is. They are so sweating the small stuff they have no time for the Big One.
News of the bailout package, first leaked Thursday and confirmed Friday, lets the whole world exhale. But like the morning after a bad dream, the image of what you saw remains vivid.
The people who lead the country and those who want to, ducked or blinked. No thanks to any of them, our financial system is largely intact.
Thanks goes only to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed chief Ben Bernanke and their teams for working 'round the clock to stop the madness. Their solutions, which went from ad hoc to systemic, are by definition less than perfect and are certainly in need of tinkering. But, as Paulson said Friday, they are far better than the alternative.
Of course, the ultimate thanks goes to the taxpayers who will shoulder the burden of bailing out the banks, the mortgage holders and lenders and, yes, the political class. In truth, the bailout saves Washington as much as Wall Street. Nothing Washington said mattered until the money was on the table.
But what of the next time? It's worth remembering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's midweek confession as the banking system was unraveling. Asked if Congress would pass legislation to deal with the crisis before a planned recess next week, Reid said no, adding: "No one knows what to do."
Finally, an honest man in Washington.