John Kerry is scarcely a competent politician, let alone a comedian, so his attempt to avenge the humiliations of 2004 instead of immediately acknowledging his gaffe can come as no surprise. He ought to have resisted the urge to confront the cheap politicians and cheaper commentators who so eagerly distorted the meaning of that fumbled wisecrack. He should have apologized first, depriving his critics of their insincere outrage, and counterattacked later.
It is indeed advisable in politics to strike fast and hard at aggressive adversaries. But in this instance, it was Kerry's stumbling aggression that became the issue. He needed to make amends for saying something that sounded offensive to soldiers and veterans, even though he meant no such thing. His reluctance to respond with fluency and grace suggests that wounded pride overruled better judgment.
Still, this overblown episode seems unlikely to change the opinion of even the most foolish and poorly informed citizens. At most, the White House and the congressional leadership have succeeded in arousing the ever-simmering resentments of their base -- and, of course, giving compliant journalists an excuse to bash Democrats again.
But if Republicans and their friends in the media are so eager to talk about what Kerry said and what he meant, there is certainly plenty of context, subtext and pretext to sustain debate.
Perhaps the hidden meaning of Kerry's remarks can be derived from the identity of the speaker. Those who hate him insist that the Massachusetts senator actually "meant" exactly what he said -- that inattentive and lazy students might end up "stuck in Iraq" -- because he holds military service and ordinary people in contempt.
"In Kerry's cocoon of privilege," snarled Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, "those who serve in our military are failures who never did their homework."
Leaving aside the established fact that Kerry was referring to the president and not to American troops -- and that Mehlman is a prevaricating phony -- what evidence is there to support such a slur? Not much, but there is plenty to suggest the opposite.
Unlike George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, to name only a few examples, Kerry left his cocoon of privilege at Yale to face combat in Vietnam. For the past three decades he has maintained friendships with men who were under his command. Nobody who knows Kerry -- including his supposed friend and fellow senator John McCain, who played the political hack by attacking him this week -- believes that he regards American soldiers and officers as losers.
But what about Mehlman and his masters in the White House? Their accusations against Kerry sound like a projection of the inner thoughts of the Republican upper crust. Bush got a coveted berth in the Texas Air National Guard as a result of his family connections and disdained to complete his service. Cheney used various student and family deferments to avoid military service because he had "other priorities." Rove obtained a student deferment, dropped out of school and then somehow escaped induction when he was working for George H.W. Bush at the Republican National Committee. Much as the Bushes believe in war, no member of that wealthy and well-connected family has seen combat for more than half a century.
So much for Kerry's clumsy misspoken joke, which scarcely compares with the president's recent claim that he has "never been 'stay the course'" in Iraq. What would the joke have meant if spoken as scripted for him? According to Kerry aides he was supposed to say, "If you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't you get us stuck in Iraq."
Perhaps it is petty at this point to mock the president's intelligence, but Bush's lack of due diligence in promoting, planning, launching and overseeing this war is so obvious, so gross, so tragic and so indisputable that Kerry's quip sounds almost too mild in comparison. All the lethal stupidity was compounded Wednesday when Bush reiterated his confidence in Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense whose failures and misconduct have outraged Republicans as well as Democrats.
Bush's endorsement of Rumsfeld deserved the attention devoted to Kerry. So did his equally astonishing statement to the Associated Press about the reasons for his satisfaction with the secretary of defense. "I'm pleased with the progress we're making," he said.
The human, economic and diplomatic cost of that bizarre attitude remains the real, central issue in this campaign. Pretending to see progress, as Iraq sinks into bloody chaos, is a sickening insult to the 104 Americans who died there last month, and the thousands killed and wounded since this disaster began.