LAST week's Democratic Convention and surrounding events raised for me some tough questions. One is the need somehow to differentiate between what is basically trivia - in no small part generated instinctively by the media, the way a dog kicks dirt after doing its business - and what is important in trying to make decisions about the candidates.
Sen. Hillary Clinton had it at least half right in her declaration that John Kerry is a serious man for a serious job.
If we get it wrong, and this comment is not meant as a slice at anyone, we get a war, a damaged economy, a stained blue dress, a president with no credibility, dead soldiers - something definitely bad for the country. So it is important this year that we figure Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush out, and then vote carefully and with our lights fully on in November.
Now, how fair is it to look at personal details as we scope the candidates out? Let's try two test examples.
First Daughter Jenna Bush, in the back of the presidential limousine, sticks her tongue out at people along the route and - bad luck for her - a photographer.
What should we conclude? The worst would be that she is rich, spoiled, and contemptuous of the ordinary people whom her father is trying to get to vote for him to keep the Bush family in the White House.
We could keep going. What kind of a father is Mr. Bush to have raised a daughter who would do such a thing? If he and his wife haven't been able to give her a proper upbringing, how could anyone imagine that he is capable of running a country?
And so on.
Second example. Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, lets a journalist from a newspaper long unfriendly to her and her family get under her skin with a question. She gives him a rude, inelegant response, suggesting that he "shove it."
So what kind of a person is candidate Kerry if he can't keep his wife in line? What will happen when/if he is in the White House and she tries to run the show, the way Hillary Clinton tried to? We didn't vote for HER!
And so on.
Now, how much are these relevant aspects of the candidates we are trying to size up, and to what degree are they irrelevant to the capacity of candidate Bush or candidate Kerry to serve effectively as president of the United States of America?
I would argue that both stories are irrelevant - fun for the media, fun or horrible for the crazed zealots and hardened cynics who run political campaigns. Neither example has any bearing on the suitability of the two men to govern.
Anyone who would jump on Mr. Bush for the rude behavior of his 22-year-old daughter has never been a parent. Anyone who would hop on Mr. Kerry because he can't control the spontaneous speech of his spouse has probably never been married.
I would add an important footnote: Candidates also thus do not have the right to put family members forward as extensions of themselves, as campaign tools to forward their candidacy.
We won't be voting in November for Jenna Bush or Teresa Heinz Kerry. George Bush hasn't stuck his tongue out at voters yet from the back of his limousine, as far as we know.
Nor has John Kerry yet told a journalist to shove it, as far as we know.
The relationship between Mr. Bush and his daughter is interesting, but by no means a definition of his character. Ditto, Mr. Kerry and his wife.
What is infinitely more relevant are the people whom the candidates are likely to bring with them into the senior positions of their administrations.
If it is Mr. Bush, the question of who gets carried over from the first administration to the second is always sensitive. To jettison someone who wants to be brought along for the second round is to send a policy message, just as firing someone in the first, as with CIA Director George Tenet, though Mr. Tenet claimed he wasn't pushed but jumped.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has already said he will not serve in a second Bush term, if there is one. He gave as his reason the fact that he is tired. In other words, don't even think about plugging him in behind Dick Cheney. Plus, he'll want more than the $175,000 a year he makes now so he can send his children to college.
This astonishing position makes one wonder what planet the Republican elite are living on. Is Mr. Ridge aware that the average American's pay is $42,400 a year, a quarter of the salary on which he says he can't afford to send his kids to college?
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, now 72, won't be carried over. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a lightning rod for criticism for his dogged pursuit of a religious right, anti-civil rights agenda, will also probably be history in January, even if Mr. Bush wins.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will likely conclude that whatever credibility he has left after having been ignored, in spite of his magnificent military and international political background, in the run-up to the Iraq war, would not benefit from four more years.
In spite of her general ineffectiveness as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice's close relationship with Mr. Bush will assure her a place in a second Bush Administration.
In any case, the likely cast of supporting players in a future administration - as opposed to baseballs bounced in front of the plate, falls off bikes, and the behavior of wives and children - is where voters should be looking at this point of the game.
Dan Simpson is a retired diplomat and a member of The Blade's editorial board.