It's long been obvious that the war will decide the election.

Only now it looks like Vietnam, not Iraq.

How did we get to the point where the election has been hijacked by a debate over whether John Kerry's wounds were bad enough, and his bravery sufficient, in a jungle war 35 years ago?

I blame the media. (Why not? It's my column.)

The Swift Boat Veterans have a right to purchase air time and make their case, and they've done a remarkable job, from their point of view, with a lousy half-million-dollar ad buy in three states.

But the media, which can't get enough of Vietnam, picked up the issue and ran with it on a hundred cable finger-pointing shows -- without having the slightest idea whether it was true. Without that echo-chamber effect, this dinky little ad would have sunk without a trace.

Newspapers initially gave the spot short shrift -- except for the Boston Globe, which got a retraction from one of the vets, only to see him later retract the retraction -- but they soon reported for duty. The Washington Post and New York Times found numerous inconsistencies in the accounts of some of the anti-Kerry veterans, and a Chicago Tribune assistant city editor who served with Kerry broke a 35-year silence and supported his version on a key disputed incident.

But now the media pendulum has swung to the other extreme. It's swift boat, swift boat, swift boat every single day. What about Bush's second-term agenda, Kerry's health care plan, the new overtime rules and (ahem) Iraq? Overshadowed, drowned out or blown off by the histrionics over Kerry's "character" and whether he deserved a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

You think the average swing voter worried about next week's paycheck is spending a whole lot of time thinking about whether John Kerry was or was not under enemy fire when he pulled a Navy crewmate from the Bay Hap River in 1969?

Those who say Kerry brought this on himself by making Vietnam the emotional heart of his candidacy -- it certainly dominated the convention -- have a point. But it was the United States Department of Defense that decided to award Kerry all those medals for bravery.

The latest fascinating spectacle has been to watch the president and his top strategists avoid any direct criticism of the swift boat ad while calling for an end to all advertising by 527s (most of which are on the liberal side in this cycle). But when Bush broadened his explanation yesterday to include an attack on outside soft-money ads, I had to wonder: What did he think he was getting when he signed McCain-Feingold?

There is, however, a tinge of hypocrisy in the media demands that Bush blast away at the swift boat vets to show they're not his puppets. Kerry also has plenty of ties to the liberal organizations that have been spending tens of millions on anti-Bush ads, some of them quite harsh, and I haven't read too many pieces saying he needs to disassociate himself from these outfits. (Kerry did, however, label "inappropriate" the MoveOn spot that fired back at the dissident veterans by reviving the Bush-AWOL-in-the-Guard charges.)

So are we stuck in the Bay Hap River time warp until the Republicans take the stage at Madison Square Garden?

"President Bush said on Monday that political advertisements run by a broad swath of independent groups should be stopped, including a television advertisement attacking Senator John Kerry's war record," reports the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/24/politics/campaign/24swift.html?hp. "But the White House quickly moved to insist that Mr. Bush had not meant in any way to single out the advertisement run by veterans opposed to Mr. Kerry.

"Mr. Bush spoke to reporters at his Texas ranch after a weekend in which veterans supporting and opposing Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, furiously debated mostly unsubstantiated accusations against him by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. . . .

"Asked on Monday about one of the anti-Kerry advertisements, financed largely by Texas supporters of Mr. Bush, the president said that he wanted to stop 'all of them.'

" 'That means that ad, every other ad,' he said.

"The president spoke on a day when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in another indication of its web of ties to the Republican Party, acknowledged that a woman who helped set it up and works for it is an officer of the Majority Leader's Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the former House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas.

"The name of the woman, Susan Arceneaux, is given as the contact person on the post office box that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lists as its address. . . .

"His press secretary, Scott McClellan, said Mr. Bush had not intended to single out the Swift boat advertisement as one that should be stopped."

The Wall Street Journal has some other details:

"The Kerry campaign criticized Mr. Bush's remarks as too little, too late. 'The moment of truth came and went, and the president still couldn't bring himself to do the right thing,' Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said in a statement. 'We need a president with the strength and integrity to say when something is wrong.' . . .

"In another sign of the tensions that are unusually high for this time in an election year, Mr. Kerry telephoned former Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole for an explanation of skepticism Mr. Dole expressed about Mr. Kerry's combat awards. Mr. Dole, the unsuccessful 1996 Republican presidential nominee, declined to apologize, but offered to set up a call between the two candidates to defuse tensions. 'I said, I think you and Bush ought to get on the phone,' Mr. Dole recalled."

USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-08-23-bush-ads_x.htm finds yet another twist:

"Two of John Kerry's fellow swift boat commanders in Vietnam said Monday that they have been misrepresented by a group of veterans and supporters of President Bush who have attacked Kerry's war record. The men say they have tried unsuccessfully for two weeks to get the group to change its Web site to reflect their support for Kerry."

Kerry's "credentials have been questioned by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose Web site shows a photo of Kerry with 19 officers from his division. The group said only one man in the picture, Skip Barker, supports Kerry. Rich McCann and Rich Baker are among four listed as 'neutral.'

"But McCann, 60, a consultant from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, said he told the group he was neutral about whether it used his picture. 'I was never neutral about (Kerry) as president,' he said. 'If the question is whether John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief, my answer is absolutely.'

"Baker, 61, now a baker by trade, says he was never contacted by the group, perhaps because he recently moved to Pittsburgh. Kerry is 'very well fit for command,' he said. 'He was one of the most courageous and aggressive swift boat captains in the division.' Both men say they voted for Bush in 2000 but won't again."

(By the way, MoveOn is rolling out a celebrity-studded anti-Bush ad campaign, as I report in The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27095-2004Aug23.html print edition.)

"It's an axiom in political circles that campaigns are always about the future," writes Ron Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/complete/la-na-outlook23aug23,1,5481119.column?coll=la-elect2004-complete. "But this year's presidential election is in danger of being hijacked by the past.

"Each side has contributed to this backward-looking environment.

"Kerry has developed an extensive and detailed agenda on everything from domestic security to healthcare. But the Democrats, at their national convention last month, focused much more on his service in Vietnam 35 years ago than his plans for the next four.

"Bush's campaign has been even heavier into retrospective. On the campaign trail, the president has devoted almost all of his time to defending his decisions of the last four years and attacking Kerry's voting record in the Senate. His television ads have struck the same notes. Until recently, the missing piece has been almost any hint of what Bush might do if reelected.

"This shift into reverse has now been accelerated by the group of anti-Kerry Vietnam War veterans called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Amplified by talk radio and heavy coverage on cable television, their ad accusing Kerry of misrepresenting his service in Vietnam is consuming the campaign. Suddenly, on the evening news, debates about the Mekong Delta are elbowing aside reports about Najaf; if you closed your eyes, you might wonder if you were listening to Walter Cronkite instead of Dan Rather."

And that's the way it is.

The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/TheNote/TheNote.html scolds the press on several points:

"There is no evidence that the Bush campaign is orchestrating the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the known ties between them are significantly less close than between John Kerry's campaign and the 527s supporting him.

" -- The traditional media has shown no capacity to resist the story -- for a week and counting this stuff has been the dominant narrative of the presidential race.

" -- In the days left before November, name all news organizations who will devote more space and time to the health care proposals of President Bush and Senator Kerry than to Senator Kerry's war record. (The answer: none.)

" -- If John Kerry can't build a campaign organization that can de-fang 250 guys spending a million bucks, how good a president could he possibly be?

" -- The greatest political effect all this will probably have on the outcome of the election is to give the conservative base many reasons to get all riled up in hating John Kerry the way the left hates George Bush -- and, as Matthew Dowd will tell you, firing up the base is the way this election will be won.

" -- Undermining ONE of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth charges -- such as William Rood did -- does not undermine them all. The reporting on Rood by many news organizations over the weekend -- painting him as repudiating all the charges being made after 'dramatically breaking his silence' -- was embarrassing.

" -- Kerry's truthfulness is significantly more in question on the Cambodia 'issue' than it is on any of his medals, which is why the anti-Kery group returns to Cambodia whenever its credibility is challenged.

" -- The traditional media can never cover this story in enough volume to satisfy Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh."

Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com says the latest turn of events is no surprise:

"In the last few days I've gotten various emails from critics (gleefully) and supporters (frettingly) of Kerry either wondering or simply asserting that Kerry brought this on himself by highlighting his service in combat in Vietnam. The point is echoed by reporters who sheepishly hang the attention they've given to the Swift Boat group on Kerry's having 'made his service an issue.'

"For Kerry supporters or Democrats who think this may be true, I can only ask you, please, please do not be such chumps. And for his critics, please allow your punches to the groin the purity of their cynicism, without sullying them with any claims that Kerry forced your hand.

"This was always in the cards. Always. Thus the need to get out early making the case in Kerry's favor. Since it was coming anyway, far better to hit it with the wind at your back than sitting still. The Kerry campaign's only mistake -- and it was no small one -- was not getting out ahead of it sooner."

American Prospect's Michael Tomasky | http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=8388 begins his column by citing The Post's | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A21239-2004Aug21.html zillion-word Sunday takeout on the subject:

"The Washington Post should not even be running such a story -- a takeout of something in the neighborhood of 2,700 words, I'm guessing, delving into the remotest arcana about what really happened on the Bay Hap River on March 13, 1969 -- in the first place. Len Downie and the paper's other editors would undoubtedly argue that the story represents the Post's tenacity for getting to the truth, without fear or favor. But what the story actually proves is that a bunch of liars who have in the past contradicted their own current statements can, if their lies are outrageous enough and if they have enough money, control the media agenda and get even the most respected media outlets in the country to focus on picayune 'truths' while missing the larger story.

"And the larger story here is clear: John Kerry volunteered for the Navy, volunteered to go to Vietnam, and then, when he was sitting around Cam Ranh Bay bored with nothing to do, requested the most dangerous duty a Naval officer could be given. He saved a man's life. He risked his own every time he went up into the Mekong Delta. He did more than his country asked. In fact he didn't even wait for his country to ask. . . .

"George W. Bush spent those same years in a state of dissolution at Yale, and would go on, as we know, to plot how to get out of going to Southeast Asia. On that subject, here's a choice quote. 'I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment,' Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 1990. 'Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.'

"Let's parse that quotation phrase for phrase. We do not, of course, know the full context of the conversation he was having with the reporter, and we don't know exactly what question Bush was asked. But his words begin from the presumption that actually going to Vietnam was absolutely not an option. The quote is entirely about how to avoid going."

The can of worms is definitely open.

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ sees a possible silver lining for the Dems:

"The Kerry camp, though damaged by the allegations, has all but won on the merits. In the last couple of days, several mainstream press investigations . . . have (despite a certain conventional even-handedness) undermined most of the key charges made by the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans For Truth that John Kerry didn't deserve his medals. The SBVFT argument has been further damaged by new testimony from previously silent eyewitnesses who back up Kerry's version of the events that led to his first Purple Heart and his Silver Star. A series of suspicious-if-not-quite direct connections, and one spot-on one, have been established between SBVFT and the Bush campaign. And Kerry seems finally to be hitting back.

"If that were the end of it, one could argue that this whole controversy might ultimately rebound to Kerry's benefit. It could become, in the minds of voters, yet another example of the president aligning himself with a pack of politically convenient untruths. And if that happens, Kerry ought to be able to turn the tables -- for instance, by asking all decorated war veterans in America what they'd feel like if someone started publicly asserting that they didn't deserve their medals.

"But of course that's not the end of it. Starting this week, SBVFT begins airing commercials attacking Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony -- a line presaged on the Sunday shows by former Sen. Bob Dole. It has long been understood that Kerry's greatest potential Vietnam-related vulnerability is his leadership of an anti-war veterans group. In Karl Rove's playbook, the attack on Kerry's medals was just a softening-up exercise prior to the real assault. As Maureen Down puts it: 'The White House must tear down [Kerry's] heroism before it can tear down his patriotism.'

"What I find infuriating about all this is that Kerry's willingness to protest the war is an essential part of what, to my mind, makes him one of the great heroes -- indeed, perhaps the greatest hero--of that era. Here's a guy who, as a college student, understood and expressed publicly serious and well-founded doubts about the wisdom of America's Vietnam strategy. Then, unlike many others of his generation, he put his doubts aside and his life on the line in order to do what he could to make his country's policy a success. Then, having seen first hand that his initial suspicions were correct, and that the line coming out of Washington -- that victory was just around the corner, that the 'Vietnamization' strategy was working -- was a lie, he stood up and told the public the unvarnished truth. In my book, that's three morally courageous acts in a row."

But many people, obviously, are still rankled by Kerry's antiwar activism.

Progressive Editor Matthew Rothschild | http://www.progressive.org/webex04/wx082304.html still can't believe this issue is cutting against Lt. Kerry:

"What amazes me is that the ad seems to be working.

"Here's John Kerry, who volunteered to fight in Vietnam and won three purple hearts, a bronze star, and a silver star.

"And here's George W. Bush, who has bopkes, as we say in Yiddish. He weasled his way into the National Guard and--shall I put it charitably?--had only a spotty record there, at best.

"I would have thought that this would be obvious to anyone watching the slanderous commercials, and that the smear would quickly rub off on Bush. It wasn't even a good smear. . . .

"At the end of the day, I still believe these ads will backfire.

"Other veterans will start to wonder whether their own medals could be so easily, so sleazily, besmirched. And fair-minded Americans everywhere eventually ought to be able to see through the muck."

I'll give the final word to Jeff Jarvis at the Buzz Machine | http://www.buzzmachine.com/archives/2004_08_22.html#007794:

"The real lesson of the whole Swift Board brouhaha is this:

"America isn't over Vietnam -- not by a long shot.

"I said when Kerry gave his acceptance speech and John-John salute in Boston that I couldn't believe Vietnam had been rehabilitated as a word and a war in America. Well, I couldn't believe it for good reason. What we're really seeing in this alleged controversy now -- besides mud-slinging for mud-slinging's sake -- is the old prowar and antiwar sides fighting over the war once more.

"By emphasizing Vietnam, Kerry scraped the scab of the war. And then the Swifties -- backed by Bushies -- poured salt onto it. The wound is not healed. And it's stinging again. If we're not careful, it will start bleeding.

"Nothing good is coming of this. It's not illuminating anything about the candidates. Oh, you can screech at me all you want about this in the comments -- Lord knows, you have -- but all the screeching won't tell me what to think. As a voter, I still say I don't care.

"I don't care about the Vietnam war.

"We are in a war now. We are in a war against terrorists and Islamofascists and for modernity and civilization and America. That is the war I care about."

Oh right: That war.