Ruben  Navarrette Jr.,
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What's worse, being stuck in Iraq or stuck on stupid?

We may have just witnessed the end of what was expected to be John Kerry's encore bid for the White House. Chances are the former Swift boat captain will not be reporting for duty as the Democratic nominee in two years. And for that, the country can be grateful.

How could someone with a fairly decent education who is speaking to students about the importance of education wind up saying something that sounded so uneducated?

What John Kerry said on Monday about how young people either ``study hard ... and make an effort to be smart'' or they ``get stuck in Iraq'' was totally lame -- and his excuses for why he said it were even lamer. Shelled by criticism from the right, the Massachusetts senator at first defiantly refused to apologize, insisting that it was the Bush administration that owed the country an apology for having a ``broken policy'' in Iraq and arguing that what he really meant was to insult Bush for not doing his homework when it comes to the war.

But none of that rang true. And when the criticism became bipartisan to the point where Democratic candidates started distancing themselves from him, Kerry tried to atone for a ``poorly stated joke'' with a poorly worded statement. In it, he expressed ``regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform'' and apologized ``to any service member, family member or American who was offended.''

That's terribly weak. Why do career politicians, on the rare occasions when they do apologize, always make it sound as if what they're sorry about is that someone took offense -- not that they said or did anything offensive? Career politicians such as Kerry have also perfected the knack of taking what could have been a one-day story and turning it into a three-part miniseries.

Instead of immediately admitting a mistake and begging for forgiveness, many of them go from insulting an individual or -- in Kerry's case, the U.S. military -- to insulting the rest of us by feeding up whoppers about what they really said, or what they really meant when they said what they said.

The initial infraction may get the headlines. But in the end it's the far-fetched excuses that do the most damage.

Kerry came across as an elitist snob. OK, maybe that's not a news flash. Still, for someone who tried to milk his stint in Vietnam and medals for all they were worth in the 2004 presidential campaign, it was stunning to hear Kerry dis the military as a second-choice career path for those who haven't made ``an effort to be smart.''

But, if you get past the part about the military, there was something valuable in Kerry's remarks. At the core, he was talking about something young people need to hear a lot more about: How people make choices as they go through life, and how those choices sometimes have dire consequences. His sermon was about personal responsibility and how we shape our own destinies. He was reminding a generation that is in danger of getting sucked into the new American creed of blaming others for your woes that there is no point in seeing yourself at the mercy of powerful and sinister forces beyond your control. And, however clumsily, he issued a blunt warning that those who don't dig into their studies may wind up with fewer options in life.

It reminds me of when anti-immigrant activists go around arguing that unskilled immigrants depress wages for high school dropouts, then they jump to the conclusion that the answer is to limit immigration. When the real moral to the story is this: Don't drop out of school unless you want to suffer the humiliation of competing with -- and possibly losing a job to -- a low-skilled immigrant with a sixth-grade education who can't even speak English.

Success starts with accepting personal responsibility and taking ownership of one's life and making good choices. That's what Kerry was really trying to convey. Granted, he made a mess of it with his ``joke'' about Iraq. But that doesn't change the fact that this is exactly the right message for these times and this generation. And delivering it requires no apology.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.,

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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