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1:35 PM Tue, Oct. 16th

Pre-election plea: How about some substance?

WASHINGTON – 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, we now also view our president as Protector of the Homeland – and we would like to 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 NewsHour," 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.

As David Von Drehle of The Washington Post wrote recently, 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 and so on) 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 that 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 Bronze and Silver Stars) 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 swift boat. 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?

E-mail Roger Simon WriteRoger@aol.com