In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, a Yale senior named George W. Bush sought admission to the Texas Air National Guard. He wanted to fly fighter planes, just like his father.

With unusual swiftness, Bush was accepted, commissioned and trained to fly an F-102 interceptor. He spent the rest of the war in the Texas Guard, except for a brief moment when he was transferred to Alabama so that he could work in a political campaign there.

According to the Los Angeles Times, young Bush, whose father, George, was then a Texas congressman, got "favorable treatment and uncommon attention in his time in the Guard."

As he runs for the Republican presidential nomination, it is inevitable that the younger Bush, now governor of Texas, receives this kind of scrutiny -- especially after the treatment given in the past to Vice President Dan Quayle and President Clinton.

But let's stop for a second. George W. Bush volunteered to fly a high-performance military aircraft -- one of the world's most dangerous occupations, even in peacetime -- in a unit that was liable to be called up for service in Vietnam.

That doesn't sound like somebody trying to save his skin. There were much safer ways to avoid service in Vietnam than going through jet-fighter training and accepting a commission as a combat pilot.

Even if his father's prominence helped him along, his father didn't pass the physical for him or make him immune to the training accidents that claim the lives of so many student pilots in the military. Try landing a hot military jet at night in the rain, and you will find yourself very much alone.

The L.A. Times story is careful and balanced. But it is part of a destructive trend that has veered so out of control that I regret to say I have succumbed to it myself.

It is not partisan malice. We are more like thoughtless children pulling the wings off flies, just out of curiosity. Any time some new political figure pokes his head up and decides to run for high office, the press now feels obliged to find some fatal character flaw, some crooked deal in his past.

If we can't find one, we'll write it anyway, using the standard weasel words of the investigative reporter who has come up empty: "The sequence of events raises disturbing questions . . . blahblahblah."

Young Bush has now been taken to task (by me, among others) for presiding over sadistic freshman hazing rites at a Yale fraternity, for profiting from an inside deal in his purchase and sale of the Texas Rangers, for confusing Slovakia with Slovenia, for calling the inhabitants of Timor "Timorians" and for using "Grecian" instead of "Greek" as an adjective.

His spouse, Laura, has been derided in the New York Times as a "Betty Crocker wife," meaning, no doubt, that she cooks for her own children. How bourgeois! How five minutes ago!

Enough is enough. Bush has been a popular governor of Texas. He courageously stood up to the yahoos in his own party when they wanted to throw the children of undocumented immigrants out of the public schools.

He remains a mystery on many important national issues, and he should be asked to explain where he stands. There may be excellent reasons not to vote for him. But there is no reason to destroy his character or question his intelligence or sneer at his family. That's not journalism. It's destructive mischief, and it hurts the country.

(C)1999, New York Daily News