Changing the subject

August 25, 2004

STRIFE IN Iraq, sapping American blood and treasure, careens from chronic to crisis and back again. U.S. intelligence agencies are under fire in the midst of the war on terror. An anemic economy can't produce enough jobs, and the high price of gas seems certain to shoot up. The redesign of Medicare appears to be unraveling as health care costs soar.

A seeming nightmare for incumbent President Bush. Yet the presidential campaign is currently dominated by charges and countercharges about what happened 35 years ago in Vietnam, with Democratic challenger John Kerry, a decorated war hero, on the defensive.

This nonsense grows out of an ad campaign launched by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group bankrolled by a millionaire GOP donor who is a close friend of presidential adviser Karl Rove. The White House claims it has no connection to the ads, but you can practically see the smirk. After all, for a guy whose own military record as a stateside National Guardsman during that era remains a mystery at best, the negative focus on his challenger couldn't have worked more to Mr. Bush's favor.

But this is dangerous territory. Overshadowing the question of whether, say, Mr. Kerry was actually in Cambodia on patrol on Christmas Eve 1968 or merely near the border, is the question of where George W. Bush was on Christmas Eve 1968. Chances are he wasn't in uniform, and he surely wasn't in combat.

Mr. Kerry set himself up for attacks from old enemies by making his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his campaign. He wanted to show evidence of leadership and bravery, areas where President Bush has appeared vulnerable. And that's fair enough; character does count.

But the American electorate deserves better than a protracted back-and-forth over what these candidates chose to do with their lives when they were young men in the 1960s. President Bush should repudiate the ads about Mr. Kerry's service and start explaining to the voters how they're better off than they were four years ago. And Mr. Kerry should stop saluting so much and start explaining to the voters exactly how he would make their lives better in the next four.

These are perilous times, from the war in Iraq to the raveling economy at home. The conduct of these campaigns must reflect the gravity of that peril and address the very real concerns of all Americans. Now that would be a welcome show of presidential leadership.

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