Patriotism on the cheap

For the first two centuries of U.S. history — while Americans were proudly winning a war for independence, founding a nation, abolishing slavery, settling a continent and winning two world wars — the patriot was that admirable fellow citizen willing to sacrifice his own individual well-being for the common good or to sacrifice her own personal security for the security of the nation. Patriotism was earned, not just asserted.

That definition would effectively be altered in 1973, when President Richard Nixon, who had just won a landslide re-election victory but was facing rising public opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, became the first American president to wear an American flag in his lapel. Nixon got the idea, according to historian Stephen E. Ambrose, from H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, “who had seen it done in a movie called ‘The Candidate.’” Nixon then had the word passed to his staff: Seeing as he was wearing a flag, many of them might want to do the same to show their support for him and the country. Gerald Ford, who succeeded the disgraced and resigned Nixon, had earned 10 battle stars as a World War II naval officer and was apparently comfortable in dropping such “flag lapel patriotism.”

After the deadly attacks of 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney (who had sought and received five student deferments to avoid the draft to serve in the military so he would not risk being sent to combat in Vietnam, later testifying, “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service”) joined President George W. Bush in putting the Stars and Stripes on his suit jackets. The political message shortly emerged: If you support our troops, you wear Old Glory; if you don’t wear Old Glory, then which side are you really on?

This attitude was highlighted in an ugly moment from the most recent presidential campaign. While Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was making his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia convention to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate, the Republican Party of North Carolina used Twitter to attack Kaine as “shameful” for wearing “a Honduras flag pin on his jacket but no American flag.” Even though Kaine had, decades earlier, spent a year in Honduras as a Jesuit missionary, he was not wearing the Honduran flag but was instead wearing the symbol, recognized by the Department of Defense, of Blue Star Families, a group that provides support for families of those serving in the U.S. military. The senator’s son, 1st Lt. Nat Kaine of the United States Marine Corps, was at that very moment deployed in Europe in support of this nation’s threatened NATO allies.

To look at their official portraits is to realize that somehow American presidents who personally endured the loss and horror of combat — from George Washington to Andrew Jackson to Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and George H.W. Bush — never felt the need to advertise their patriotism on their suit jackets. Upon inspection, it seems that a lot of political figures who either avoided the military draft or chose not to serve have enlisted in the ranks of the “flag lapel patriots” — including the current commander in chief, who has boasted that eluding sexually transmitted diseases during his draft-eligible years in New York was his “personal Vietnam.”

Unsurprisingly, genuine patriots, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, choose not to wrap themselves in the flag they served so heroically. McCain criticized the U.S. manpower policies during the Vietnam War, in which 58,220 Americans died: “We drafted the lowest income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. If we’re going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.” Forget the lapel pin, please.


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