POLITICS OF WHAT IS – AND IS NOT – A JOKE

With a week to go before a critical midterm election, the president, his supporters and most of the media acted as if the most important issue in America wasn’t a costly war, failed international policies, failed domestic policies or the battle between religion and science. Instead, what apparently mattered most was a bad joke.

If you don’t do well in school … “you get stuck in Iraq.” That was the punch line of an ill-advised, badly delivered attempt at humor by Sen. John Kerry, who has never been strong in that department.

He says he was trying to criticize the president, not the troops, and any careful reading of what he said supports that, as does common sense. Why would Kerry insult troops on foreign soil? For one thing, unlike George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Kerry actually was one. Besides, what would such a crack gain him politically?

But instead of recognizing that, instead of being bigger than that, the president himself joined right in with the chorus of bloggers, radio hosts and bee-buzzing media who happily glommed onto a tempest in a teapot, rather than face anything difficult, like where did all those guns we sent to Iraq disappear to?

Words that come back to haunt

Within hours, Tony Snow, the president’s press secretary, was demanding Kerry apologize. Soon, so were Sen. John McCain and other Republican lawmakers. Then Cheney. And finally, showing he can’t resist returning to his few glory moments … standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center or whipping up on the inept Kerry … Bush did, too.

“The members of the United States military are plenty smart and plenty brave,” Bush exhorted to a crowd of supporters, “and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology.”

What’s sad is that Bush, who is supposed to be the president of all of us, not half of us, can’t pass an opportunity to thump on a dead horse while ignoring the ones running wildly through the barn door. John Kerry isn’t even running for anything. Who cares what he says at this point?

Yet one sentence at one small college appearance suddenly is the biggest issue in America? Not nukes in North Korea or Iran? Not education? Not a 700-mile fence? Not the numbing numbers of newly dead in Iraq?

Call me simple. But if Bush, Cheney and the angry legions who tell us Kerry or Bill Clinton are the root of all this country’s problems – or that their occasional offensive remarks stand for anyone who ever disagrees the White House – then perhaps those same people would take ownership of a few other words.

For example:

“Mission accomplished.”

“We will be greeted as liberators.”

“I’m a uniter, not a divider.”

Anybody care to explain those?

Because they weren’t jokes. At least they weren’t supposed to be.

The dirty tricks of politics

Kerry’s comment, even taken as he meant it, was rude and unnecessary. But the president knowingly sinking to the lowest interpretation and turning it into a national distraction was far worse. After all, last time I looked, Kerry wasn’t running the country. Bush was.

And if we elected Bush because he was better than Kerry, then he ought to behave that way.

Instead, anything that gets your mind off the issues and back on hating the other guy is the strategy – especially when one party owns the House, Senate and White House, because it can’t pass the buck on those issues.

But a bad joke? A stupid remark? It’s like pulling a fire alarm just before a history test. Yay! An escape hatch! You almost could hear the blog nation screaming “all hands on deck” the moments Kerry’s words left his mouth.

Politics have long been ugly. But voters have a harder time than ever focusing on the issues because our politicians seem so intent of distracting us from them, and our media seem only too happy to oblige.

But we have to be smarter than all of them. And we ought to be able to tell an issue from a bad joke. After all, when it comes to the Iraq war – the most divisive, expensive and dangerous issue of all – Kerry can comment on it.

But Bush has to answer for it.

There’s nothing funny about that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at Barnes & Noble, 500 S. Main, Royal Oak.

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