On Independence Day, we hold close the comforting symbols of patriotism — the flags, the marching bands and the windy orations of politicians about what it means to be an American. However, it is not always a pretty sight or an uplifting exercise when symbols become the measure of a citizen's devotion to country, especially at a time the nation is at war.
It was a sad commentary on the state of U.S. politics that Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, felt it necessary to travel to Independence, Mo., on Monday to defend himself against suggestions that his own patriotism is anemic. He has come under fire for not wearing a U.S. flag pin on his jacket lapel until recently and for his former pastor's "God damn America'' rant from the pulpit. Then there was the remark his wife Michele made about being "really proud'' of her country "for the first time in my adult life'' after her husband starting winning primaries.
What does any of this, however offensive to some, have to do with Obama's patriotism?
"Surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monoply on patriotism,'' Obama said in his Missouri speech. "And surely we can arrive at a definition of patriotism that, however rough and imperfect, captures the best of America's common spirit.''
Unfortunately, Obama's speech on patriotism was marred by a stupid and gratuitous remark by one of his campaign surrogates, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, that seemed to disparage the military service of Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,'' Clark said in a television interview Sunday. A McCain surrogate could ask if working as a community organizer, as Obama once did, is a better qualification.
Enough, we say. Can't we all at least agree that Obama's patriotism and McCain's military service should be beyond question and have no place in this presidential campaign? When we go down this path, we debase our politics and devalue the true meaning of patriotism, which is most nobly expressed not in words but in actions, including sacrifice.
This ugly business has gone too far already, with bloggers on the right spreading ugly rumors about Obama being a Muslim — not true — and bloggers on the left simultaneously accusing McCain of "disloyalty'' to his country because of his coerced participation in propaganda films after being tortured and of war crimes for bombing targets in Hanoi.
Even U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia crossed the line a few weeks ago when he suggested that McCain's service as a fighter pilot reflected on his character. "What happened when they (missiles) get to the ground?'' he asked. "He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into these issues.''
Rockefeller promptly and profusely apologized for his words, as he should have. It wasn't right in 2004 when Republicans questioned John Kerry's military service in Vietnam, and it's not right when Democrats try to degrade McCain's military record in the same war. Both sides should call off the swift boats.
Patriotism is more than a reverence for symbols. Most Americans do not wear a flag pin on their lapels, so why do some believe that it should be a mandatory wardrobe accessory for a presidential candidate? Why do some who support the war in Iraq question the patriotism of those who oppose it? The last thing America needs in these challenging times is a revival of the "love it or leave it'' mantra.
In a powerful essay in Time magazine, Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that no matter how they define patriotism, "Americans should tremble before suggesting that any fellow citizen lacks it.''
He went on: "Patriotism should be proud but not blind, critical yet loving. And liberals and conservatives should agree that if patriotism entails no sacrifice, if it is all faith and no works, then something has gone wrong. The American who volunteers to fight in Iraq and the American who protests the war both express a truer patriotism than the American who treats it as a distant spectacle with no claim on his talents or conscience.''
On this Fourth of July, let Americans proudly wave Old Glory and wear it on their lapels, if they choose. Let them salute our war veterans and give thanks for living in the freest country on earth. And above all, let them give each other the presumption of being patriotic.