IN AN era of voluntary military service, the war record of a presidential candidate may eventually become irrelevant. But for now, military experience does matter, and the issue already has been joined by the renewal of the debate over whether President Bush absented himself from duty in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.
While war was raging in southeast Asia, Mr. Bush got himself transferred from a Texas unit to the Alabama National Guard.
A Boston Globe study of his military career indicate that no records exist to show that he had attended required drills or performed weekend duty rotations between May, 1972 and November, 1972.
He did, however, work in Alabama on the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Winston "Red" Blount, a family friend. His commanding officer, retired Brig. Gen. Donald Turnipseed, said he had no recollection of seeing Mr. Bush on the base, but conceded, perhaps after some arm-twisting, that he could not recall having been on the base much during that time.
However, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, rather like the police chief in the movie Casablanca, expressed shock that the Democrats would bring up Mr. Bush's war record, adding that "these kinds of attacks have no place in politics, and everyone should condemn them."
Mr. McClellan knows very well what those who run the White House political war room are trying to do to Democratic frontrunner John Kerry, who earned a Silver Star (the nation's third highest award for valor), a Bronze Star, and three Purple Heart awards for wounds received in Vietnam combat.
The GOP spin, both in the media and on the ubiquitous Internet, is that John Kerry performed valorous service, but his post-discharge conduct as a Vietnam War protester marks him as unwise and quite possibly unpatriotic.
Mr. Kerry has been circumspect about Mr. Bush's service record, saying that questions about it are a matter for the President and the military to answer. But he frequently alludes to the contrast between his service on a carrier in wartime and Mr. Bush's stage-managed landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last May to declare that the Iraqi mission was accomplished.
In one of the best-received lines in his stump speeches, Mr. Kerry says that if the GOP wants to make national security the centerpiece of the 2004 campaign, his reply, echoed by campaign audiences, is "Bring it on."
This campaign could be an ugly one, reminiscent of the contest between the senior George Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988. The difference will be that Mr. Kerry is well-equipped to dish it out as well as take it.
Democrats still resent the fact that Republicans impugned the patriotism of former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost three limbs in Vietnam. If there is any more shameful political smear job than that, it is difficult to imagine.
Mr. Bush was able to skate past questions about his military service record in 2000, but that does not foreclose the issue now, especially when it is clear that his campaign will be focused almost entirely on his conduct as post 9/11 commander in chief.
The President should answer the questions.