John Kerry, at a news conference last week, repeated his accusation that Gen. Eric Shinseki was forced out as Army chief of staff because he wanted more troops for Iraq. The trouble is that the Democratic presidential nominee was spreading an urban myth. The bigger trouble is that it was no isolated incident.

Kerry also said last week that the Bush administration may push for reinstatement of the military draft, when in fact that idea comes only from antiwar Democrats. At the same time, he said retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks complained that Iraq was draining troops from Afghanistan, when the truth is that he never did. More than a week earlier, Kerry blamed President Bush for higher Medicare premiums when in fact they are required by a law that Kerry voted for.

Exaggeration is a familiar political staple, but presidential candidates usually are held to a higher standard. Kerry's recent descent into myth-making may reflect his campaign's anxiety in the final weeks. The immediate questions are whether he will engage in misstatements during tonight's first presidential debate and whether he will be challenged if he does.

Kerry is voicing inaccurate statements that have been repeated so often on the Internet, on radio talk shows and by campaign surrogates that they have come to be regarded as the truth -- for example, the explanation for how Shinseki's long and distinguished military career ended.

Kerry picked up the story April 13 during a campaign event in Providence, R.I., declaring: "General Shinseki said very clearly: We need 200,000 troops. And what happened to him? He was forced into early retirement." Kerry reiterated this last week at a Columbus, Ohio, news conference: "General Shinseki told this country how many troops we'd need. The president retired him early for telling the truth."

That is not true, and even Bush critics in the Pentagon know it. The truth is that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, demanding control of the Army, collided with Shinseki on issues unrelated to Iraq. In March 2002, Rumsfeld announced that Shinseki's term as chief of staff would end as scheduled in June 2003 without extension -- an unprecedented action that made the general a lame duck. It was after that, not before it, on Feb. 25, 2003, that Shinseki told a Senate committee the United States would need "several hundred thousand" soldiers (not precisely 200,000) for Iraq occupation duty.

In his speech in Philadelphia last Friday, Kerry declared: "All you have to do is ask General Tommy Franks how surprised he was that those troops moved out of there [Afghanistan] when he was trying to do the job he was doing." As a former trial lawyer, Kerry should have known what Franks's answer would be. Kerry could have found the general's position by reading his best-selling memoir, "American Soldier," in which he denies that Bush starved Afghanistan for the sake of Iraq.

"President Bush had stressed his concern that we maintain momentum in Afghanistan," wrote Franks, who supports the president's reelection. Indeed, when Kerry, at a Sept. 21 news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., suggested that Bush had taken needed troops out of Afghanistan, Franks said that very day in an ABC radio interview with Sean Hannity: "That's absolutely incorrect."

One day after Kerry misrepresented the former Central Command leader, the Associated Press reported that the candidate, in West Palm Beach, Fla., "raised the possibility" of a reinstated draft. That is an old saw on the Internet even though there are no such plans at the Pentagon. The only advocates of renewed conscription are liberal Democrats, led by Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who believe it would discourage U.S. military intervention around the world.

Earlier, on Sept. 8 in Cincinnati, Kerry put the blame on Bush for higher Medicare premiums. In fact, health care experts told me, the premiums were mandated by a 1997 codification of the law on which Kerry cast a favorable vote.

On Jan. 8, 1976, I wrote a column detailing six major untruthful statements by Jimmy Carter -- about himself, not his opponents -- during two public appearances. He went on to the presidency without ever refuting what I wrote. It will be interesting to see whether John Kerry follows the Carter model during the four weeks left for this campaign.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.