It is to be welcomed that President Bush wants to clear up questions about his National Guard service. He wants more details out there, and good for him. This story should be laid to rest, and the one person who can do it is named George W. Bush.
Up to now, Bush has been interested in a rather narrow aspect of the story. He wanted Dan Rather and CBS News to come clean about whether they used fake documents in reporting on the president's Guard service back in the 1970s.
"There are a lot of questions and they need to be answered," Bush told the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., last week. "I think what needs to happen is people need to take a look at the documents, how they were created, and let the truth come out."
I couldn't agree more. And apparently CBS came to the same view. CBS messed up, and yesterday, Rather fessed up. He said the network could no longer stand behind the documents. There will be much hand-wringing about the media in the coming days, and properly so.
But what's good for Dan Rather, who is not running for president, ought to be good for George Bush, who is. "There are a lot of questions and they need to be answered." Surely that presidential sentiment applies as much to Bush's Guard service as to Rather's journalistic methods.
The New York Times put the relevant questions on the table yesterday in a lengthy review of Bush's life in 1972, "the year George W. Bush dropped off the radar screen," as the Times called it. The issues about Bush's National Guard service, the Times wrote, include "why he failed to take his pilot's physical and whether he fulfilled his commitment to the guard."
Oh, I can hear the groaning: "But why are we still talking about Vietnam?" A fair question that has several compelling answers.
First, except for John McCain, Republicans were conspicuously happy to have a front group spread untruths about John Kerry's Vietnam service in August and watch as the misleading claims were amplified by the supposedly liberal media. The Vietnam era was relevant as long as it could be used to raise character questions about Kerry. But as soon as the questioning turned to Bush's character, we were supposed to call the whole thing off. Why? Because the media were supposed to question Kerry's character but not Bush's.
And, please, none of this nonsense about how Kerry "opened the door" to the assault on his Vietnam years by highlighting his service at the Democratic National Convention. Nothing any candidate does should ever be seen as "opening the door" to lies about his past. Besides, Vietnam veterans with Republican ties were going after Kerry's war record long before the Democratic convention.
But, most important, there is only one reason the story about Bush's choices during the Vietnam years persists. It's because the president won't give detailed answers to the direct questions posed by the Times story and other responsible media organizations, including the Boston Globe. Their questions never depended on the discredited CBS documents.
Bush could end this story now so we could get to the real issues of 2004. It would require only that the president take an hour or so with reporters to make clear what he did and did not do in the Guard. He may have had good reasons for ducking that physical exam. Surely he can explain the gaps in his service and tell us honestly whether any pull was used to get him into the Guard.
But a guy who is supposed to be so frank and direct turns remarkably Clintonian where the National Guard issue is concerned. "I met my requirements and was honorably discharged" is Bush's stock answer, which does old Bill proud. And am I the only person exasperated by a double standard that treated everything Bill Clinton ever did in his life ("I didn't inhale") as fair game but now insists that we shouldn't sully ourselves with any inconvenient questions about Bush's past?
I'm as weary as you are that our politics veer away from what matters -- Iraq, terrorism, health care, jobs -- and get sidetracked into personal issues manufactured by political consultants and ideological zealots. But the Bush campaign has made clear it wants this election to focus on character and leadership. If character is the issue, the president's life, past and present, matters just as much as John Kerry's.
Dan Rather has answered his critics. Now it is Bush's turn.