Somewhere amid the frivolity is the serious business of an election

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Following the US election, most of us are probably diverted first by the name-calling, which - judging by the Republican conference - has passed beyond the purposeful and is now floating around the world, looking for more recherché targets for its spare vitriol. I doubt that at any time since the Trojan War could you extract such a merry chorus of raspberries from any audience by simply saying the word "Paris".

Following the US election, most of us are probably diverted first by the name-calling, which - judging by the Republican conference - has passed beyond the purposeful and is now floating around the world, looking for more recherché targets for its spare vitriol. I doubt that at any time since the Trojan War could you extract such a merry chorus of raspberries from any audience by simply saying the word "Paris".

But we probably ought to make more of an effort to understand the more detailed debate about the respective candidates' war records, even if, in the end, they don't amount to much more than the same sort of name-calling. For an outsider, it is quite difficult to understand, and one might suspect that it matters less than the American political elite automatically assumes. For a whole generation, the Vietnam war was now a very long time ago, and for a large part of public opinion, it is not immediately obvious that, for young men of the time, the only morally acceptable response to the war was to fight in it.

The most curious aspect of it is that nobody seems very keen to make the explicit point that a politician who has not experienced war at first hand, like most of the Bush administration apart from Colin Powell, may enter into an engagement lightly and frivolously; there is no political capital to be had out of the converse reluctance of an experienced veteran. There evidently is political capital to be had out of the admittedly distasteful spectacle of a president engaging in the sort of war which he strenuously evaded when young.

John Kerry's insistence on his war record - all that "reporting for duty" nonsense - is in the end going to prove self-defeating. It was too great a temptation to the party managers to turn him into a war hero, and some of the details immediately started to sound very questionable. Claiming to have been shot at by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1968 sounded like fantasy: the Khmer Rouge was completely unheard of by America until the 1970s, and remained a mystery almost until the fall of Phnom Penh. He obviously had a fairly honourable war, but now he just sounds like a miles gloriosus.

And if, on examination, the heroism of the war record is not likely to satisfy those who really value those things, neither is it at all likely that anyone more sceptical about such neo-colonial adventures will much warm to the constant harping on duty and service, 35 years back.

The respectable position for Kerry would be to say: "I went to the Vietnam war; I came to the conclusion that it was a wrong and a wasteful war; the Iraq adventure is an even more misguided one, undertaken by someone who has no understanding of what war means." The position he has taken up, and it is not a very convincing one, is to tell us about his ¡heroic exploits, and keep fairly quiet about the position that such experiences may have led him to.

The longer you consider the matter, the weaker the lessons seem which can be drawn about what the pair of them did in the war, or what the consequences of their histories would be for their conduct of policy. All that is left is name-calling.

There is some point in raising the personal history of a presidential candidate in this way, but an election should not be fought so heavily on this ground, and in the end, it won't be. America elected Bill Clinton twice, which suggests that the electorate has a very proper sense of the significance of a candidate's record in the Vietnam war. If they like him, they will overlook ancient history; they will quickly become suspicious if a military record starts being used for political advantage.

What matters is a president who knows what he wants to do, with a comprehensible agenda. At the moment, the election looks worryingly frivolous: on the one hand, a candidate amusing himself by insulting the French; on the other, that most dreaded of bores, a veteran refighting old battles. There has to be more to it than that, surely.

Power dressing

Meryl Streep, speaking at the Venice Film Festival, was setting out the sources of her inspiration for her latest role. She is starring in a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and playing the fabulous role of a conniving US senator deep in an evil conspiracy. Surprisingly, her role model was our own Lady Thatcher. "The idea of two quite prominent earrings, the necklace and a pin influenced me," she said, though emphasised that any other resemblance was accidental - in the US, audiences are reminded more of Hillary Clinton.

It makes one think how limited the imagery of female power is. Hillary Clinton has gone through one make-over after another, never seeming entirely plausible. Mrs Thatcher came to power 25 years ago, and went through numerous modifications of style - those pussy-cat bows and frilled collars, my God - before hitting on the startling Gloriana Imperatrix numbers of her last years. But that was quite a long time ago, and we still don't really know how otherwise a powerful woman should dress. Men just put on a suit; women politicians, on the whole, if they don't want to be Mrs Thatcher, veer uncertainly between Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (Mrs Clinton) and, in Cherie Blair's case, the wardrobe of Servalan, Ruler of the Federation in Blake's Seven.

Jack of all trades and master of many, so it seems

When a few months ago, an editor at HarperCollins told me that they were publishing a novel by Boris Johnson, I was rudely incredulous. Not that Boris seemed unlikely to be able to write a very amusing novel; but where on earth had he found the time? Editor of The Spectator, MP for Henley, shadow minister for something, constantly on the television, wife and four children. If that isn't a whole platoon of Enemies of Promise, as Cyril Connolly called them, I don't know what is, and I've never heard anyone complain that he doesn't do everything with attention and commitment, or of anything worse than lateness. Living with such an array of obligations, it would hardly enter most people's heads to undertake something so wholly unnecessary as to write a novel, let alone actually do it.

Personally, I have to go away for months on end and do nothing else in order to write a novel, and subsequently have to lie down and take a nice long rest. How does he do it? Most people are very fond of Mr Johnson, whether they've met him or not, and everyone refers to him as "Boris" - apart from his family, which, I believe, calls him Al. The reason, surely, is not just his celebrated charm, but a quality which is always immensely attractive, sheer inexhaustible energy. The old adage "if you want something done, ask a busy person" has a lot of truth to it.

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