Every presidential campaign seems more vicious than the last, probably because it's happening right now, and the public has had four years to forget the slings and arrows of the last one.
John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee four ago, says this campaign is the dirtiest. "I've been in very tough campaigns," says the senator from Arizona, so he ought to know. "I don't think I've seen one that was as personal and as characterized by so many attacks as these are."
Impressions differ. Some of us can't remember a presidential campaign that wasn't characterized by personal attacks.
Recall the phony letter that Dan Rather relied on to claim that George W. Bush had evaded military service? Even a veteran CBS anchorman can prove a prize sucker. ("If I knew then what I know now, I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question." --Rather, D.)
Of all the labored quips Mr. Rather liked to throw into his newscasts, the only phrase of his that may be remembered is his strange defense of that scurrilous letter as "fake but accurate." That's funny, all right, but not intentionally.
A fixture of the evening news and anointed successor to Saint Walter (Cronkite), Mr. Rather will be remembered as the talking head who fell for a highly questionable story. And broadcast it far and wide.
How sad. A legend in his own time, Dan Rather became an example to beware in ours. Gullibility has seldom extracted a higher price.
After all those years of real bravery and empty bravado, scoops true and false, his obituary -- may he live to 120 in good health -- will begin with a reference to this phony story. Oh, the things we do to ourselves when we grow full of ourselves.
Then there was the campaign against John Kerry in 2004 that led to the birth of a new verb, swiftboating, meaning to smear a political opponent.
And what about the accusations against John Edwards, who was Sen. Kerry's running mate in '04 and later a presidential candidate himself? He was accused of being an adulterer who exploited his wife's fatal illness for political purposes. Oops. Strike that. There are some accusations that turn out to be all too true.
It is the job of a vigilant, independent press to check out all such exposes -- true, false and mixed. It's a dirty business but somebody has to do it. There are those who would keep the press from digging into such unseemly matters. But should we fire the garbage collectors as long as the rest of us keep producing the stuff? Somebody's got to sort it all out and clean the place up.
John McCain himself was subjected to a campaign of tittering innuendo by no less an authority than the New York Times, which long ago become a reliable purveyor of all the news that's not fit to print.
This year's wave of rhetorical trash has only begun to arrive ashore. The only way to approach it is with a skeptical eye -- and with patience, endurance and the faith that truth will prevail in the end despite all the odds.
Come to think, it's not just the quadrennial hullabaloo of a presidential campaign that requires patience, endurance and faith, but life itself.
Strength. This presidential campaign has just begun.