It's important, and unfortunate, to acknowledge at the outset that the two major-party candidates for U.S. Senate from Illinois appear determined to ensure that voters do not learn who they are. Instead, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk are concentrating on a bitter campaign of assaulting each other through innuendo, insult and guilt by association.
That said, it's hard to understand Kirk's response to disclosures that he misstated his military record for years. In an age of deep distrust of politicians, Kirk's mistake - appearing to have assumed for himself credit for an award honoring an entire unit he led during the Serbian conflict in the 1990s - is a serious lapse, for which he has not apologized but lashed out at his opponent.
Of course, as Kirk points out, mistakes can be made in the description of a long and honorable military career. But this particular mistake is fraught with disturbing implications. Since the disclosure first appeared in The Washington Post, Kirk has often repeated that he is "very proud" of this award. Yet, until the disclosure, he consistently referred to himself as winner of the "Navy Intelligence Officer of the Year" instead of referring to his unit as winner of the "Rufus Taylor Intelligence Unit of the Year." At minimum, the discrepancy seems to suggest he was taking individual credit for an honor his entire unit won. When you factor in other questions - how could he so repeatedly get wrong the name of an award for which he was supposedly so proud? - you cannot avoid other, less flattering conclusions.
Recognizing that, Kirk must apologize for having so misled voters - accidentally or otherwise. It is not unusual for business or community leaders caught in similar resume lapses to have to surrender their jobs. So contrary to lashing out at those who criticize his mistake as critics of his military service in general, Kirk should be re-emphasizing how important it is for candidates for public office to speak and write accurately about their records and their accomplishments.
Unfortunately, Kirk's response instead has been to simply renew the "mob banker" name calling on which he so far has built his campaign against former bank officer Giannoulias.
To be sure, Giannoulias himself may have some important questions to answer about what he knew and when he knew it regarding some of the lending by Broadway Bank, where he was a part owner and vice president before becoming Illinois treasurer. But just as he cannot deflect attention from those questions by changing the subject to Kirk's flawed resume, Kirk similarly should not expect his appalling embellishment to go away because he changes the subject to Giannoulias' banking history.
The saddest part of all this, of course, is that so much of this campaign has focused not on the qualifications of the candidates themselves but on innuendo about their opponents. Hopefully, in the six long months ahead, they'll both reshape their messages in a more positive direction - and not insult the public's intelligence by trying to sidestep obvious and legitimate questions about their background and experience.