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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

He said, he said

It's time to call a truce, or at least a cease-fire, in the tiresome political skirmish over the presidential candidates' military service.

While operatives in and around the Bush and Kerry campaigns never seem to tire of wallowing in the minutiae of who served more (or less) honorably during the Vietnam War, it's pretty clear that most of the American public has heard enough of this dead-end dialogue.

(Actually, that's true of the entire early-starting, never-ending campaign, but that's another story.)

Most people already know the relevant details. Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry served in the military after graduation from Yale University. Mr. Bush enlisted in the Air National Guard and trained as a fighter pilot, although he never left the United States. Mr. Kerry enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, where he was wounded and decorated.

The long-running string of "he said, he said" charges and countercharges from each candidate's camp not only has gotten downright nasty but it also threatens to obscure current issues that are far more important.

The incessant blather has left many Americans wondering why the campaigns are spending so much time refighting a war that ended nearly 30 years ago instead of, say, debating the war we're in today in Iraq.

That's a good question. One answer is that Vietnam was the first war the United States lost, leaving behind indelible feelings of anger, shame, and national impotence - psychological wounds easily reopened. Another explanation is that it's easier for politicians to argue about what they've done in the past rather than present bold new platforms for the future.

The news media's role also bears examination. As an institution, the press - print and electronic - loves to cover personal conflict. It's so much more interesting to report the sniping back and forth between the candidates than write weighty treatises on their stands on North Korea or agricultural subsidies.

Another explanation that is less apparent but just as important is the changing character of modern politics. In a campaign run in the context of a 24/7 news cycle, political operatives fear that any charge by the opposition which goes unanswered is likely to be believed by the public. Thus, each campaign responds immediately to declarations from the other camp, always striving mightily to have the last word.

To the public, though, the repeated exchanges end up sounding like so much sophomoric bickering. Eventually - and we're about at that point - would-be voters get disgusted and stop listening. Sometimes they get so turned off by the process that they don't even vote.

The 2004 presidential election could be the most important national vote in a generation. The issues are real: war, peace, jobs and the economy, health care, Social Security reform, the budget deficit, the environment, and all the rest.

It's time for George W. Bush and John F. Kerry to get down to business in the final two months of the campaign to address these issues, at least as vigorously as they've been firing back and forth over each other's military records.

Events that occurred 35 years ago, while important, are not as urgent as what the nation should expect over the next four.



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