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Rumor has it


THE RUMOR moved quickly, from newspaper reporter to magazine writer to television correspondent and back again, in the whisper-down-the-lane world of journalism. Someone had said that Bill Clinton considered applying for citizenship in another country while trying to avoid the Vietnam draft.

But it had a smell about it, a tinny taste: No one had actually seen a letter that was said to exist, but a friend of a friend knew someone who had.

First one newspaper was said to be preparing a page 1 story, then another. Some versions said the approach was to the Swedes; others said it was to British officials.

I said Segretti.

Segretti is the word I mutter when my conscious mind refuses to accept the gutter level of politics in America. Donald Segretti was a dirty trickster of the Watergate era who, among other things, infiltrated the 1972 campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie to make sure the capable Maine Democrat would crash and burn during the primary season.

There was the literature circulated during the Florida primary suggesting Senator Muskie supported Castro and forced busing. There were the stink bombs at appearances and the appearances mysteriously canceled.

The coup de grace was the letter, on bogus Muskie campaign stationery, suggesting that his primary rivals Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson had engaged in sexual misconduct.

Sure enough, in 1972 George McGovern was the Democratic nominee and Richard M. Nixon, on whose behalf Mr. Segretti labored, won by a landslide.

This would all be history if the president had not revealed in the last few days that he is living in the past, and the worst sort of past at that.

It is astounding that Mr. Bush says that demonstrating against the Vietnam War, an honorable way for millions of us to register righteous dissent, was a dishonorable undertaking. It is astounding that he would suggest, with not a shred of evidence, that a trip Mr. Clinton made as a student to Russia was suspect.

When Rep. Robert Dornan, a stalking horse for the Bush campaign, said Mr. Clinton had gone to Moscow as a guest of the KGB, he didn't even bother to concoct sources, as Mr. Segretti might have done in the old days. Mr. Dornan said he had no proof; he just thought it was so.

Like most rumors, it is impossible to trace the one about Mr. Clinton's citizenship to its source. The State Department certainly helped the rumor along by referring questions about alleged tampering with Mr. Clinton's passport file to the FBI, the ultimate red flag.

No one has explained how the State Department came to be looking at Mr. Clinton's file in the first place, since it cannot be reviewed without his consent.

And no one has explained why a young man so ambitious that he wrote at 23 that he could not resist the draft and "maintain my political viability" would consider renouncing U.S. citizenship.

No one has to explain -- it's just a rumor, right? Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton was placed in the position of having to deny it on several occasions and to confront it during Sunday's presidential debate. He also had to deny that his Russian trip included anything untoward. Thus does the rumor mill grind.

Mr. Bush miscalculates, and miscalculates again. With his attacks on Mr. Clinton's dissent during the Vietnam era, he insults a huge group of Americans who believed the policy in Southeast Asia was ill-conceived.

And he revives the Silent Majority divide-and-conquer strategy of Richard Nixon, a strategy that was ultimately devalued by a growing body of opinion hostile to the war and the historical record on the corruption within the Nixon administration.

The innuendo campaign about the Clinton trip and the Clinton anti-war activity makes it clear that the Bush campaign is both desperate, and desperately out of touch. Mr. Bush, as he demonstrated in the debate, is stuck in a time warp, part "Best Years of Our Lives," part Joe McCarthy.

And the FBI announced Friday that it had ended its investigation into Mr. Clinton's passport file without finding evidence of tampering. Thus does the rumor mill run out.

It all stinks to high heaven; it all smells of desperation, but not of votes.

Mr. Bush needs to get current and win friends. As Nixon could tell him, fighting dirty can be a chancy way to make them.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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