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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- The Law of Unintended Consequences can be immutable, especially when applied to elections.

I was reminded of this recently when having a long, nostalgic dinner with my old high school locker mate, a brilliant fellow who went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and later compile a distinguished career in the CIA. He recalled something I had forgotten -- our election for senior class president.

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The contest in our small school's 54-student senior class was pretty much shaped by the vice principal, a dynamic former Army Ranger who wanted to teach us the ins and outs of politics on a firsthand basis, and appointed me campaign manager of one of the candidates -- a pleasant kid named Alfred. My man's main opponent was my own locker mate, whose name was Smith.

High school class officer elections are primarily a popularity contest, but I had forgotten the unintended twist this one took until Smitty reminded me of it over our reunion meal. He was enjoying a comfortable lead, it appeared, until the day before the voting when he decided to "go negative" as they call it today and make fun of my guy Alfred. He did so by putting together some pretty sophisticated posters featuring the dopey-looking mug of Alfred E. Neuman -- the befreckled, gap-toothed, jug-eared, grinning moron mascot of "Mad" magazine, the favorite humor publication of the would-be sophisticates in our senior class in the late 1950s.

On these posters, Smitty wrote satirical Vote-for-Alfred slogans drawing a parallel between the "Mad" magazine cover boy and my candidate. The inference was clear. My Alfred was supposed to be even dumber than Alfred E. Neuman, who would routinely make these incredible blunders and whom the magazine's editors and cartoonists often "ran for president" in a satirical fashion to make fun of the real occupant of the White House. My man Alfred was actually very smart.

The posters, tacked up in highly visible spots all over the school, were supposed to prompt our classmates to "laugh our friend Alfred into defeat and me into office," as Smitty recalled it. Instead, without any effort on my part or my candidate's, my classmates found the parallel humorously appealing, figured my guy had put up the posters in a modest show of self-deprecation, and elected my Alfred senior class president in a landslide.

"I learned a lot that day," my friend Smith remembered over our meal.

So, what's the point? The point is, I think there may be some unintended consequences in the 2004 presidential election unless the candidates stop trying to turn each other into Alfred E. Neuman and start leveling with the American populace by offering some real plans for the real problems voters are worried about.

Our health care system is in tatters and further unraveling.

Social Security is heading for such trouble that more young people in their 20s believe in extraterrestrial beings than in the probability of ever receiving a Social Security check. This is from actual polling results.

Real jobs are evaporating and being shipped overseas by greedy multi-national companies. "New" jobs seem to be mostly in the low-paying hamburger flipper categories.

Environmental pollution -- against which we were making great progress -- is again on the rise. More than a score of states just warned pregnant mothers not to eat fish from their lakes and rivers because of mercury contamination.

Corporate corruption seems unheeded despite high-profile prosecutions of a few notable white-collar thieves.

We have evolved into a national economy that depends almost entirely upon the whims of the stock market -- a crapshoot to begin with, and one seemingly run by panicky twenty-somethings fresh out of business school.

The tax system is grossly inequitable. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer.

Our education system is crumbling. High school curricula seem to make self-esteem a major course path and grade inflation is epidemic. College educators notice most incoming freshmen know diddly squat about grammar and rhetoric and spelling.

We are looking at stratospheric gasoline prices and other inflation-inducing factors that will further deflate anemic paychecks for years to come.

And yes, the terrorists are still out there -- seemingly more of them than ever -- now plotting to move into Central America so they can threaten our porous southern border.

Our national security is in such dire shape we're overhauling our entire intelligence system, and we're mired in a costly foreign war that more and more each day reminds Americans my age of the terrible Vietnam years that left this nation riven.

And yet, the major candidates for the presidency waste most of their time deflecting opposition charges of dirty politics over who did what in those same dreadful Vietnam years.

Maybe John Kerry did go to Vietnam in the Navy to compile a politically appealing military record. Maybe he did nominate himself for a handful of medals he didn't deserve. Maybe he did exaggerate his combat record. Maybe he did serve a questionably short tour of duty. Maybe he didn't see the philosophical light until returning and learning the war in Vietnam was growing vastly unpopular at home. Maybe he did throw some other guy's medals away on the Capitol steps in disgust.

Maybe President George W. Bush really didn't know about the hardball TV ads making all these accusations (even if he didn't -- which seems highly unlikely -- he should have). Maybe Bush is seeking the "plausible deniability" so highly prized by Republican predecessor Richard Nixon.

Maybe Bush did loaf and shirk his way through the Vietnam War by using his father's influence to cop a choice no-show spot on the Alabama Air National Guard roster -- a venue where no one seems to remember hide nor hair of him for much of that duty tour.

Maybe -- as former Clinton aide John Podesta wisecracked on national TV a week ago to counter accusations Kerry doesn't have any actual combat shrapnel in his body -- the only metal George W. Bush carries from the Vietnam years are two taxpayer-paid teeth fillings he got from a National Guard dentist.

Maybe all these carefully hurled accusations are true. You know what? I don't care. I don't care in either case. That was then. Now is now. We can't change the past.

Do not tell me what you did or didn't do in the Vietnam War. Tell me how you are going to get us out of this one without scarring an entire generation of Americans.

We have to choose between these two questionable politicians on Nov. 2, and so far, I don't hear either one of them presenting plans in clear, understandable English to solve any of the above problems -- and the ones I've listed above comprise just a handful of national headaches that have to be addressed.

Instead of trying to remind the nation -- by going to Manhattan for this week's Republican National Convention, a contrived first for the GOP -- of how we survived 9/11 under his leadership, President Bush should lay out case-by-case platform planks on each of these issues.

He should do so in clear, precise, everyday language so the average American dim-bulb like me can understand what he's talking about. Then, John Kerry should counter with his own plans, and tell us why he thinks they are better.

All of you political hacks of either party reaching for your laptops to write me that your man has already done so -- don't waste your energy. Not sufficiently, they haven't. The ideas I've heard so far are vague and sketchy. They're full of holes.

I read a ton of newspapers. I'm online all the time. I keep TV news (or what passes for it these days) on in my office throughout the day. I haven't heard any answers. Not ones that I understand, anyway.

Kerry and Bush, prove to us you do have some plans you think will work. Don't shower us with platitudes. Tell us the downsides, too. Americans are tough people. We'll bear a bunch of pain and sacrifice if we think there may be improvement in the offing. Just don't take us for the suckers you seem to think we are.

In the next nine weeks, if I don't hear anything above the level of intelligence and promise I've seen so far, I'm writing in Alfred E. Neuman on Election Day.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 31 2004