When it comes to presidential politics there seem to be a half-dozen narratives favored by big (and small-minded) media: Who’s ahead?, “Gotcha!”, the (cynical) assumption that all policy pronouncements are explainable as political maneuvering, the idea that a campaign is being run by either skilled pros or incompetent losers, and here’s what [name your candidate] ought to do, etc.

Last week the dominant narrative was Here’s what Kerry ought to do. The week before it was Who’s ahead? And this week it was “Gotcha!” The only problem was, they “got” the wrong guy–and missed the main issue.

Yes, Dan Rather and his 60 Minutes II colleagues ought to feel embarrassed, but so should his 60 Minutes I colleagues who seemed more eager to exonerate 60 Minutes from having anything to do with those tainted documents than to support their colleague, who has anchored CBS News with passion and professionalism for twenty-three years.

In retrospect, as many bloggers and Monday- and Tuesday- and Wednesday-morning quarterbacks will tell you, instead of going with documents of dubious provenance they should have gone with Marian Carr Knox, who, as Lieut. Col. Jerry Killian’s secretary, would have typed them but says she didn’t, yet adds that the information in them accurately reflects the views of her boss.

If, as seems to be the case, the underlying point of the 60 Minutes II episode was accurate, then it’s a sad comment on the rest of the press that they have relentlessly and repeatedly focused on what Dan got wrong and relatively ignored what Dan got right (namely, that pressure was put on Killian to “sugar coat” Bush’s National Guard record, that Bush got into the Guard via favoritism, that he got paid for meetings he didn’t attend, that he missed the physical he signed up for, and all the rest).

What Rather got right relates to yet another presidential narrative–the one having to do with the President’s character. If indeed Bush skipped out on his National Guard obligations at the time, that does not speak well for his character then. And if he arranged to have this dereliction expunged from his file after he became President, that does not speak well for his character now. (It may also be a violation of the law.)

Of course, if the media do their job between now and Election Day, there is one other narrative they ought to bring into focus–on the front page, the editorial page, the nightly news, in questions for the candidates during debates and everywhere else–and that is the issue that should have been front and center from the outset: the narrative about Iraq. Is the US war on Iraq an extension of what we did in Afghanistan, a real “war on terrorism” that’s making the world a safer place? Or, especially in the absence of weapons of mass destruction, is it a disastrous diversion that has made our country less secure, resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and earned the United States unnecessary enemies around the world?

That, rather than Rather, is the issue.