The personality contest foisted on the public as a campaign for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party insulted the intelligence of anyone with a nervous system, and not just because Taro Aso was known to be a shoo-in from the beginning. By presenting five candidates who were supposedly vying equally for the position, the LDP got the media to cover the thing as if the public had a say in it. The LDP hopes this illusion of involvement carries over to the next general election. If voters think they influenced Aso’s ascendance by reflecting his “popularity,” then maybe they’ll elect him for real once they are given the opportunity to do so.

Defeating Aso’s presumed opponent in the general election, Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa, may not be that easy, but the fact that there’s no real difference between the two candidates may benefit the LDP. As political journalist Henry Adams said more than a century ago, the effect of too much publicity is a general loss of sympathy: Nobody cares that there’s no difference between Taro and Ichiro. And when you don’t care, you figure you might as well keep the bums in office — or not vote at all. It’s been the secret of the LDP’s success for 50 years.

I traveled to the United States last week wondering if there was something to care about in the current presidential election campaign. I intended to watch as much campaign coverage as I could, since I knew that the information I was receiving in Japan was removed from the emotional environment that produced it.

There were, however, two enormous distractions: Hurricane Ike and the Wall Street bailout. I happened to be in Houston, which was devastated by Ike. My brother’s house was spared and he only lost power for a day, but 2 million of his neighbors were still without water and electricity the whole time I was there. Local news was dominated by scenes of homes reduced to piles of wood and people lining up for blocks to receive free bottled water and ice.

The financial crisis was a disaster of a different sort, and though it had more of a bearing on the presidential election, both candidates were overshadowed by it. John McCain belongs to the party that currently occupies the White House, so he had more of a reason to be defensive about Wall Street’s comeuppance, but instead he became belligerent, trying to convince people he was as angry as they were. Barack Obama didn’t gloat (probably because some of the deregulatory policies that led to the meltdown started during the administration of fellow Democrat Bill Clinton), but nevertheless his caution made it look as if he preferred commenting on someone’s else’s plan to offering one of his own.

There didn’t seem to be any more room for bad news. During a brief CNN report on the reopening of a bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis a year ago, killing 13 motorists, the city’s mayor said the U.S. seemed to be “lurching from one crisis to another.” Iraq and Afghanistan felt like yesterday’s catastrophes, even if they are ongoing ones, and I saw hardly any coverage of either. The only other big story was the start of a brand new O.J. Simpson trial, whose appeal was nostalgic: Hey, remember the ’90s, when things were so simple we could spend all our time on this has-been?

Americans are inherently optimistic, which is why they’ve repeatedly responded to politicians, such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who trade in amorphous themes of national purpose rather than to politicians who tell them they’ll improve things. Much has been said about how nasty this campaign has been, which is another way of saying it’s about “character.” CNN has a regular feature called “Reality Check,” which investigates the veracity of the claims the two candidates make in their ads, thus supplying voters with information they can use when making a choice, but basically the information supplied is just which candidate is being more honest at any particular moment. Obama’s wife, Michelle, has exhorted voters to “not decide based on, ‘Oh, I like that guy better,’ ” but the way the campaign is structured and reported — the only criterion available to most people. Even conservative uber-pundit George Will subscribes to it. On an ABC News talk show, he commented that the way Obama responded to the government bailout was “more presidential,” even if his initial position was tentative.

Almost everyone I talked to seemed to support McCain, which wasn’t surprising. Houston is Bush country, and though McCain tries to distance himself from the president, some lines aren’t easily crossed. These people were inclined to accept not the pro-McCain rhetoric but rather the anti-Obama rhetoric. It was all a matter of context, which is why McCain’s vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, that monkey wrench in lipstick, sounds better when you listen to her on American TV than when you read her comments in print. Live, she comes across as someone who knows what she’s talking about, even though what she’s talking about doesn’t add up to much.

In contrast to Japan’s publicity- making media machine, America’s actually does make voters care, but if you think they care for all the wrong reasons, remember that it probably makes less of a difference in the larger scheme of things. Bush’s disastrous Iraq adventure notwithstanding, presidents tend to bend to political expedience, regardless of ideology. It was the paranoid anticommunist Richard Nixon who opened up Red China and the baby-boomer liberal Bill Clinton who dismantled federal welfare. If elected, Obama will probably not be the doctrinaire liberal his supporters want and his detractors fear, but he will still be black, and that’s sufficient reason to hope for his victory. An African-American president? Now there’s a difference you can’t deny.