FOUR YEARS ago, George W. Bush explained away his surrogates' attacks on John McCain's loyalty to the military this way: "John, it's politics. "

If a cunningly executed maneuver like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is "just politics" then we've all got something to worry about. When respected professional Republican pols like Bob Dole and Kay Bailey Hutchinson jump into bed with the charlatans behind the Swift-boat ads, "politics" as usual is over: What we've got is an out-and-out carnival of the grotesque completely divorced from the best interests of our nation.

The challenges we face - finding a solution in Iraq, defusing the threat of terror, getting the country back on the right economic track - demand truth, honesty and straight talk, and - most of all - attention.

Instead, through the efforts of a well-oiled Republican smear machine, we find ourselves drifting in the August doldrums through a miasma of false and often ludicrous allegations against John Kerry and his actions as a volunteer in Vietnam.

The documentary evidence, when examined closely, not only contradicts the Swifties' claims but makes some of them seem downright ridiculous.

Larry Thurlow, for example, insists the initials "K.J.W." on what he says was a falsified action report proves the nefarious John Kerry was plotting to win Purple Hearts and get out of Vietnam early. One small hitch: Kerry's initials are "J.F.K."

In Oregon, Clackamas County vets are calling for the resignation of Assistant DA Al French, who appeared in the Swift boat ad and signed an affidavit that Kerry obtained his medals under under false pretenses. French later admitted he had witnessed none of the events described.

The Oregon state bar, after receiving several complaints, is considering whether it should look into an ethical violation.

It is yet to be seen whether the media will review every affidavit collected by the Swifties against Kerry at the behest of Merri Spaeth, one of the architects of the McCain smears in 2000.

But we already know how the private investigator Spaeth hired operated. Patrick Runyon, one of the pro-Kerry vets, described how he was contacted by someone who showed no anti-Kerry bias. Runyon willingly gave an account of the March 13 Jim Rassman rescue. But when the statement was sent back to him for his signature, it had been stripped of all references to enemy combat.

"It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire," Runyon said. "He made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life. "

This version of the politics of personal destruction, based on flimsy if not outright perverted evidence, is business as usual for the Bush team. What's scarier is that they do it so well.

From the whispers about Ann Richards' relationship to the gay community in the '94 Texas governor's race, to the chorus of insults against John McCain in 2000, to the Swift boat smears, the Bush team knew their baseless charges wouldn't go unanswered. But they also knew that by the time a response came, the damage would be done.

The timing, in the Swift Boat Swamp, is key. Just as the anti-Kerry flap gets discredited and runs out of wind, the Republican convention will be taking off, and Bush and the GOP will have the spotlight. And they'll milk every advantage from the real goal of the Swift boat ads: reawakening the culture wars rooted in the '60s and the Vietnam experience.

The press won't pay too much attention to the emerging pro-Kerry Swift-boaters, or to the debunking of the now-deflated charges that have bounced around the echo chamber of cable TV for the last two weeks.

All that will stick in the minds of voters is the point Dole made sure to articulate: "There's got to be some truth to the charges. "

THE ASSERTION that this is "just politics," in the end, is sadly right.

This is what "just politics" boils down to when the Bush propaganda machine is involved.

And that's what we can look forward to until we demand integrity and truth in our electoral process - and even in our "politics. " If not, we'll be permanently mired in the backwater bogs of the Bush version of what America is all about. A few words from John McCain might rescue us: "George, everything isn't politics."