NEW YORK — As a Serious Commentator writing for a Serious Newspaper, I feel it is my duty to tut-tut over the way the presidential campaign has degenerated into a squabble over who did what in the Mekong Delta in 1969. Why, the nerve of the media, ignoring the Serious Issues of the Day for a trip down memory lane. Why aren't they discussing the deficit, or tort reform, or the Doha Round, or our relations with Vanuatu, or.... Oops, sorry, I nodded off.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I was trying to deplore the sleazy turn of the campaign. But I can't quite manage it. I'm more inclined to grab a tub of popcorn, drop into a ringside seat, and simply enjoy the political brawl.
My scorecard, going into this week's GOP convention, had John F. Kerry ahead on points, although his opponents have landed some solid blows. The anti-Kerry veterans who have banded together as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may be sincere in their version of what happened in 1969, but the weight of evidence still supports Senator Kerry's original story. They have caught him in only one, relatively inconsequential, untruth - Kerry's claim that he was in Cambodia on Christmas Day 1968. (He now admits that something that didn't happen was "seared" into his memory.) But Kerry has been slow to respond to the allegations, and he's paying a political price. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found 12 days ago that 57 percent of respondents were aware of the swift boaters' allegations and 46 percent of those found them believable.
It's easy to understand why Kerry is now asking the Federal Election Commission to eject his foes from the ring, but it's hard to muster much sympathy for him. As Bob Dole pointed out, Kerry was practically inviting attack with his nonstop invocation of his war record as the rationale for his candidacy. Most Vietnam vets remember Kerry not for wartime heroics but for calumnies he cast upon them once he came home. It's no surprise that some of them get a tad riled when they see him running as GI John.
This political punch-up raises a couple of interesting points. First, it once again confirms that, for all the conservative caterwauling about the insidious power of liberal reporters, the establishment media have little ability anymore to control the national agenda. The press would have been happy to parrot Kerry's version of his war story as reported by his authorized chronicler, Douglas Brinkley, in "Tour of Duty." But the iron triangle of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News , and Regnery Publishing (which released the bestselling book, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry") elbowed conflicting claims onto the front pages.
Just as with the Clinton scandals, which were publicized by the same conservative crew, the rhetoric about Kerry's supposed wrongdoing has outpaced any verifiable facts. The story nevertheless has struck a chord with the public, because it plays to existing concerns about Kerry's character.
Once a general impression forms about a candidate - and this is the second point raised by the Vietnam brouhaha - a seemingly trivial event can assume outsized importance. Thus Gerald Ford's reputation as a bumbler was inadvertently confirmed when he tripped on the Air Force One gangway. Likewise, Jimmy Carter's as a wimp, when he claimed to have been attacked by what the press dubbed a "killer rabbit"; Michael Dukakis's as a soft-on-defense liberal when he posed for a ludicrous photo inside a tank; George H.W. Bush's as an out-of-touch aristocrat when he was befuddled at encountering a supermarket scanner; and Al Gore's as an insufferable android when he dominated the first debate with George Bush.
Kerry's problem has been the persistent perception that he is a consummate opportunist who is willing to say anything to advance his own career. The New Republic unearthed a classic example when it found letters his office had sent to one of his constituents in 1991: One explained why he favored the Gulf War, the other why he opposed it. The swift boaters' stories fit his image as a slippery schemer.
Much to Democrats' chagrin, the claim that Mr. Bush was AWOL during National Guard service hasn't caused as much of a stir, perhaps because it doesn't fit his image - Bush is generally seen as too hawkish, not as someone who ducks a fight.
Also, such symbolic issues matter less for a sitting president. We can judge him by his record in office. With a challenger, voters are reduced to sifting his resume for clues about his character. That's why the swift boaters' allegations have taken on a bigger importance than just about anyone expected - or than they probably deserve.
• Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©Los Angeles Times.