In a way, this is going to be cruel to watch, but instructive nonetheless.

Same event; two reporters.

Opening lines of an Associated Press story from the sunbaked plains of Crawford, Texas:

Former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland tried to deliver a letter protesting ads challenging John Kerry’s Vietnam service to President Bush at his Texas ranch Wednesday, but neither a Secret Service official nor a state trooper would take it.

And, this account from today’s Washington Post:

The old soldiers came to reenact the Vietnam War here Wednesday on the plains of central Texas.

Their commanding generals: John F. Kerry and President Bush.

Their mission: An exchange of letters.

The result: Pure farce.

The AP story, by Deb Riechmann, was carried in numerous U.S. papers, including (minus the byline) The New York Times. The Post story came from veteran reporter Dana Milbank.

Think stale slice of Wonder Bread versus hot, flakey croissant.

Or juicy filet mignon versus day-old hotdog.

You get the picture.

Here’s more Milbank:

With about 30 journalists watching, the two veterans circled each other in the 95-degree heat at a checkpoint outside the ranch, holding their letters as if they were hand grenades. Then — without exchanging letters — the two retreated to face the cameras at a nearby schoolyard, Cleland demanding Bush denounce ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush veteran, identified by the White House as “a representative of the campaign,” praising one of the group’s ads as “very telling.”

Presidential campaigns always have an element of political theater, but Wednesday’s showdown by the two campaigns at a bend in Prairie Chapel Road was worthy of Broadway. And the White House press corps, starved for action after a week of inactivity, was a willing audience.

It’s been a long summer of mind-numbingly dull and uninspired campaign coverage. Yesterday’s showdown at the O.K. Corral was a welcome break — but only Milbank’s readers got a front-row seat.

Susan Q. Stranahan

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.