Two news stories, of vastly differing consequence, have over the past week raised the question of how issues of war and peace will play in this year's presidential contest:
1.) The summer-long controversy over claims and commercials produced by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group continued, as a now widely-discredited circle of embittered Vietnam veterans used money from associates of President Bush and White House political czar Karl Rove to try and develop doubts about aspects of John Kerry's military service 35 years ago.
2.) US Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, the vice chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and one of the senior Republican members of the House International Relations Committee, announced after a thorough review of the information available to him that he had come to the conclusion that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was unjustified. "I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," explained Bereuter, who added that, "knowing what I know about the reliance on tenuous or insufficiently corroborted intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD (Wepaons of mass destruction) arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified."
Guess which story the news media focused on with such intensity that both Kerry and Bush were forced to address it publicly.
Here's a hint: It's not the story about the war that is currently going on.
It's no secret that most of the American media no longer covers contemporary politics in a serious manner. But it is still remarkable that major media in this country is so addicted to spin that its practitioners are incapable of recognizing real news when it develops.
Make no mistake: Bereuter's statement is real news. In fact, it is the sort of news that ought to dominate today's national discourse in the same way that similar pronouncements by prominent members of former President Lyndon Johnson's Democratic party came to dominate the 1960s discourse about what was then a burgeoning conflict in Southeast Asia.
When a ranking member of the president's own party, who has direct and detailed knowledge of the issues involved, says the commander-in-chief led the country into an unjustified war, that's a big deal.
And that is exactly what Doug Bereuter did.
In a letter to constituents who had contacted him regarding the war, the 13-term congressman condemned the Bush Administration for launching the war "without a broad and engaged international coalition." Bereuter explained that the Administration made "fundamental and predictable" missteps. Because of those missteps, he wrote, "we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess."
"The cost in casualties is already large and growing," the Congressman observed, "and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible."
Bereuter, whose reputation as an expert on foreign affairs is such that he will upon his retirement from Congress at the end of this month become the president of the Asia Foundation, suggested that the costs of this war extend far beyond Iraq. Because of the Administration's actions, the Congressman said, "our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."
If his blunt statements about the current crisis were not enough, Bereuter raised the prospect that the Bush-Cheney Administration might have misused intelligence in order to draw the country into the war. "Left unresolved for now is whether intelligence was intentionally misconstrued to justify military action," noted the veteran representative from Nebraska.
As indictments of an administration's military adventurism by senior members of Congress go, that's a very serious statement. As indictments of an Administration by senior members of Congress who happen to be members of the president's own party -- and who are speaking not in a historical context but in a time of war -- go, Bereuter's four-page letter contained all the political and policy drama that the public discourse could possibly demand.
Yet Bereuter's statement, released quietly and with no Washington spin machine ginning it up, was barely heard in the echo chamber of Campaign 2004.
Even after Nebraska newspapers spread the word of Bereuter's comments regarding the current war and the current president, talk radio programs continued to devote hour after hour to discussions of what happened on what river in 1969, cable television programs continued to feature endless debates about whether Kerry's swift boat turned left or right on the way to Cambodia, the anchors and hosts of network news programs breathlessly reported Bob Dole's grumbling about how Kerry needed to apologize for not taking more hits in Southeast Asia, and reporters for the major newspapers that are supposed to maintain some sense of perspective pressed Bush and Kerry to address every new twist on a swift-boat journey that is starting to seem almost as endless as the Vietnam War itself.
What of the questions that Bereuter's statement raised about the current war and the current Administration? Are they being explored on talk-radio shows? On cable television? On network news programs? On the front pages of daily newspapers in New York and Washington and Chicago and Los Angeles?
Outside of continuing coverage by a few local newspapers in Nebraska -- especially the Lincoln Journal Star -- the story of Doug Bereuter's heresy flamed out after the first day.
Perhaps, 35 years from now, during some future presidential campaign, the major media of the United States will catch up to the story of the Iraq War. The way things are going, it may be an ongoing conflict.