How the "Patriotism" Debate Might Actually Help Obama

Waving the Flag

How the "Patriotism" Debate Might Actually Help Obama

Waving the Flag

How the "Patriotism" Debate Might Actually Help Obama
The history behind current events.
July 3 2008 11:09 AM

Waving the Flag

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Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

John McCain isn't a scoundrel, but in a presidential race in which he now trails Barack Obama, patriotism is shaping up as his last refuge. Given McCain's image as a man who has sacrificed for country, and given Obama's still-inflammatory flag-pin remarks and similar pseudo-controversies, the Republicans' best bet for victory now seems to be to revive an old Cold War (and post-9/11) pattern: running on what I called, in the first part of this piece, a "Reaganite" patriotism—military strength and an uncritical celebration of national symbols—while forcing the Democrats to defend a "Stevensonian" version that vainly stresses freedom of thought and conscience. This week's pseudo-controversy over Wesley Clark's remarks about McCain's experience in making national-security decisions indicates that the old GOP playbook is already being dusted off.

It's hard to remember a time when the Republicans didn't own the patriotism issue. You have to go back to the 1930s and '40s, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt captured the flag on behalf of fighting poverty and defeating fascism, to find the Democrats in command. Back then it was the isolationists—mostly Republicans—who suffered sidewise glances and charges of faithlessness.

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But the Cold War turned the tables. A nuclear Russia and a Red China fueled charges that the Democrats, despite Harry Truman's staunch anti-communism, were lax in defending the American Way. The mood grew suspicious. "Un-American" became the feared epithet.

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, who owed his presidential candidacy to his battlefield heroics, never stooped to impugning Adlai Stevenson's patriotism. But he didn't have to. Richard Nixon, his running mate, derided "Adlai the appeaser ... who got a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment," while Ike smiled placidly. Stevenson, in his speech to the American Legion, countered that "to strike the freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety." But the subtlety was all Stevenson's. Voters chose Ike in a landslide, twice.

If the Republicans grabbed the patriotism issue in the 1950s, the Democrats ceded it in the 1960s. As Vietnam and generational change split the country, younger liberals came to regard flag-waving and pledge-recitation—like military service—as emblems of enforced conformity. Teachers sued school systems to abstain from saying the pledge. Radicals torched Old Glory to protest an unjust war waged in America's name. Most liberals, to be sure, abjured such gestures. But they defended their countrymen's right to engage in them—rooting their own patriotism in the right to dissent.

When Main Street Americans grew angry at the left's irreverence, Nixon, returning in 1968, rode the backlash to the White House. In November 1969, he applauded the "Great Silent Majority" of Americans who backed his Vietnam policy; soon after, he gave out flag lapel pins for his staff to wear—the better to needle liberals who found such displays jingoistic. Calls to support the troops and uphold the nation's honor permeated Republican speeches. "America: Love it or leave it" bumper stickers adorned cars and trucks. Liberals, bridling at Nixon's exploitation of national symbols, increasingly found it hard to join in acts of old-fashioned patriotism. Simply to speak of love of country could sound divisive.

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Claims of patriotism dominated Nixon's 1972 re-election bid. Early on, his aide H.R. Haldeman accused Edmund Muskie, then the Democratic front-runner, of "consciously aiding and abetting the enemy" in Vietnam, even as the president insisted that he wasn't doubting Muskie's loyalty. When the Democrats ultimately nominated George McGovern on a "Come Home, America" plank, the game was over. Though McGovern had flown bombing raids in World War II and honorably served in government, he shared the left's unease with brash nationalistic displays. For the candidate and his aides, wrote campaign chronicler Theodore H. White, " 'patriotism' was a code word for intolerance, war, deception." Republicans exploited the Democrats' squeamishness with Nixon's straight-up patriotism, charging in their platform that McGovern was "bemused with surrender," his plan for withdrawal "an act of betrayal." Nixon crushed him.

Reagan soon burnished the patriotism issue to a high gloss. To temper his warmonger image, Reagan had learned to utter treacly words—"I always get a chill up and down my spine when I say that Pledge of Allegiance"—that would have sounded impossibly hokey coming from Nixon. But, like Nixon, he grounded his patriotism in a foreign policy of standing up to communism. Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada to depose a left-wing government provided a perfect occasion to brandish national pride—a mini-Vietnam that ended in victory. At a high-spirited ceremony on the White House South Lawn, replete with fluttering flags and the Marine Corps band, the president welcomed home the medical students who'd been on the island nation, declaring, "What you saw 10 days ago was called patriotism."

Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign showcased his soft-sell patriotism. During a summer when the nation's athletes triumphed at the Los Angeles Olympics to chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" (with no Soviet competition present), Madison Avenue's top talent set out not to defend the president's policies but to conjure up warm feelings about the country. Their "Morning in America" ad stitched together sumptuous images of Americana, from a tractor tilling a field to a sunlit San Francisco Bay. The goal wasn't to demonize former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, but, as campaign aide Richard Darman wrote, to "paint RR as the personification of all that is right with, or heroized by, America. Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America's idealized image of itself—where a vote against Reagan is, in some subliminal sense, a vote against a mythic 'America.' "

Mondale avoided defilement because he never posed a strong threat to Reagan's re-election; in 1988, Michael Dukakis wasn't so lucky (as I recalled in Part 1 of this piece). But the Cold War's end offered Democrats a reprieve. George H.W. Bush lambasted Bill Clinton in 1992 for having visited Moscow as a student and having protested the Vietnam War "on foreign soil," but the imputations of disloyalty rang hollow. Communism had collapsed, and voters cared more about the tanking economy.

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Once elected, Clinton made strides toward defusing the patriotism issue for his party, reminding self-proclaimed "patriots" like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, that "[y]ou can't say you love your country and hate your government." Still, when the Republicans pushed a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, Clinton's triangulated response exposed a continuing unease: While opposing the amendment, he touted a flag-burning law he had signed as governor of Arkansas, offering the cryptic sentiment that he wanted to "stop flag-burning before it starts."

The speed with which Sept. 11 revived the old Cold War dynamics remains harrowing. Despite a brief hiatus when patriotism knew no party, the airwaves were soon bristling with accusations of disloyalty and angry feelings over flag displays. The 2002 and 2004 Republican campaigns cynically fused patriotism to a hawkish security policy and the righteous exhibition of symbols. Not even John Kerry's wartime valor was bulletproof, as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth demonstrated. That Bush, who had spent his Vietnam years in the Air National Guard, suffered far less obloquy confirmed that the GOP still owned the patriotism issue.

Given this history, it's easy to imagine Obama getting the full Dukakis treatment. Although McCain spoke out against the Swift Boaters in 2004, his behavior in 1988 was far less honorable. Surely, his surrogates will resurrect slighting questions about Obama's failure to put his hand on his heart during the national anthem, Jeremiah Wright's "God damn America" remark, and all the other kindred trivia. Like Dukakis, he'll be portrayed as exotic, alien; as with Kerry, his antiwar posture will be assailed as surrender.

But most Americans are now much less worried about terrorism than they were four years ago, and 2008 may turn out like 1992, when economic distress and Bush fatigue neutered the usual patriotism tricks. Unhappiness with the second George Bush and pocketbook woes could also mean that McCain's vision of patriotism isn't so much repudiated as admired respectfully from a distance—like a World War II Army kit in the Smithsonian Institution. Obama may reach the White House not because of his view of patriotism but despite it.

There's a third possibility, too: that patriotism may, finally, help the Democrats. Although Dukakis got only limited traction from his son-of-immigrants narrative, Obama has leveraged his status as the nation's first viable black presidential candidate to great advantage. He has effectively equated the national improvement that Stevensonian patriotism has always sought with his own election to the White House. As Obama wrote in Time last week, "this essential American ideal—that our destinies are not written before we are born—has defined my life. And it is the source of my profound love for this country: because with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, I know that stories like mine could only happen in America." Even McCain has taken to calling him "a great American success story."

In running—and winning—Obama seems to embody America's admirable ability to overcome racism. Reagan's handlers framed the 1984 race so that a vote for Mondale was a vote against a mythic America. Obama's strategists have put in place a frame in which voting against him means rejecting a vision of an America where a black man can become president. Once a tough sell, this idea is gaining power as the election draws nearer. Still, Obama isn't taking any chances. In the last couple of months he has begun sporting a familiar symbol in the superior corner of his left lapel: a tiny American flag.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, has written for Slate since 1996. He is the author of several books of political history.