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Jewish World Review April 28, 2004 / 7 Iyar, 5764

Roger Simon

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Something about nothing | There is no law that says elections have to be about anything important.

Most would agree that the presidency is a significant job — since Sept. 11, 2001, our president is now also viewed as Protector of the Homeland — and we would like to be believe that the way we elect presidents is significant, also.

But if modern presidential elections have taught us anything, it is how trivialized the process has become.

Not every presidential election has to be about war or peace, prosperity or poverty, leadership or drift.

But I would like to think a presidential election is about something.

The election of 1988, one of the worst elections in modern history, was about nothing. Nothing that mattered anyway. It was about flag factories and Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance and who really was the wimp.

It was so bad, that George H.W. Bush felt he had to promise "a kinder, gentler nation" if he won.

Bush's media adviser, Roger Ailes, described his theory of dealing with the media during that campaign this way: "You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage."

Judy Woodruff, then with the "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," responded, "So you're saying the notion of the candidate saying, 'I want to run for President because I want to do something for this country,' is crazy."

"Suicide," Ailes replied.

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As David von Drehle of the Washington Post wrote this Sunday, our nation is not sharply divided today by accident. The presidential candidates, he writes, no longer are trying to unite Americans, but are trying to divide them.

"Occasionally speeches may pay homage to broad, unifying themes," he writes, "but the campaign day to day seems intended to deepen, rather than erase the rift."

Nor is that the only problem. While hot-button issues (abortion, affirmative action, etc.) are often used to divide people, at least those issues are about something.

As 1988 shows, campaigns don't have to be about anything at all and there are signs the 2004 campaign is heading in the same direction.

The John Kerry campaign had to spend precious time last week defending Kerry against charges that the first Purple Heart he was awarded in Vietnam (he ended up with three, as well as a Bronze and Silver Star) was for a trivial rather than a serious wound.

Even though there is nothing funny about Purple Hearts, I had to smile when I first heard that accusation. As anyone in the military can tell you, Purple Hearts have over the years been awarded for all kinds of reasons.

My father, a combat veteran of the Pacific in World War II, received a number of medals including a Purple Heart. The Purple Heart was the only one he would talk about. "We were unloading sides of beef off a ship," he told me, "and there was an air raid and some jerk let go of his rope and the side of beef fell right on top of me. When I woke up in the hospital, an officer was going down the rows handing out Purple Hearts to everyone. So that's how I got my Purple Heart."

According to the Associated Press: "Kerry got his first Purple Heart after he got shrapnel in his left arm above his elbow. Kerry's third Purple Heart came from an incident on March 13, 1969, when a mine had exploded near Kerry's swiftboat. A small piece of shrapnel lodged in his left upper buttock. He was treated with a tetanus shot, topical dressing and an ace bandage. Kerry also was wounded by a piece of shrapnel on Feb. 20, 1969, on his left thigh. Doctors decided to leave the shrapnel in place rather than make a wider opening to remove it."

So here is a guy still walking around with shrapnel in his thigh that he got while serving his country in combat and he has to defend himself against charges that his first wound wasn't big enough?

Which leaves me with two questions: One, how many of those who are questioning his service in Vietnam served in Vietnam at all?

And, two, who the hell cares about how big his wounds were? What's the standard? The bigger the wound, the more qualified you are to be president?

Because if that is the standard, then George W. Bush is in big, big trouble.

That was last week. This week began with another Vietnam accusation. Monday, Kerry was accused of contradicting himself as to whether he threw away his combat medals when he returned from Vietnam or his combat ribbons.

Kerry has said frequently that he threw away his ribbons. But a TV network found a tape of Kerry in 1971 saying he threw away his medals.

Got that? This whole story hangs on whether it was medals or ribbons. Do you know the difference? Do you care?

Kerry says that he and the military make no distinction between medals and ribbons, but in any case he is sticking to the story that he threw away his ribbons. And he snapped back that this "comes from a President who can't even [provide evidence] whether or not he showed up in the National Guard."

Perhaps Americans are bored with discussions of Iraq, terrorism, jobs, health care and schools. But are we really going to spend the next seven months talking about medals, ribbons, shrapnel and the National Guard?

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, put it this way: "I'd like to see us put the war that was over more than 30 years ago behind us. I've spent the last 30 years trying to heal the wounds of the war….We have enormous challenges facing America. I believe that President Bush served honorably in the National Guard. I believe that John Kerry served honorably, and I wish we would move forward and face the challenges that lie ahead of us. I don't think most Americans are enjoying this."

Well, they may not be enjoying it, but, boy, oh boy, are they going to be getting it.

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