Rally Round the Flag, Boys

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When Michael Dukakis was asked about news stories casting doubt on George Bush's World War II heroism, he said, "I don't think that kind of thing has any place in the campaign . . . You don't fly 58 missions without enormous courage and tremendous patriotism." Not long afterward, Bush said of Dukakis, "What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?"

There is no mistaking Bush's point. It has nothing to do with the constitutional question of whether Dukakis eleven years ago should have vetoed a bill mandating recital of the pledge in school classrooms every day. Bush is implying that Dukakis is unpatriotic, that he doesn't love America as much as he should or as much as Bush does. "He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe," said Bush in his convention acceptance speech. Keynoter Thomas Kean, the New Jersey Governor formerly admired for his decency and moderation, accused the Democrats of "pastel patriotism," neatly combining the suggestion of insufficient national ardor with the sexual innuendo of Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous "San Francisco Democrats" phrase of 1984.

Bush praises his running mate Dan Quayle on the peculiar grounds that he "damn sure never burned the American flag," as if Dukakis or Lloyd Bentson or anyone in mainstream public life ever did. Meanwhile, other Republicans spread the baseless rumor that there are photographs of Kitty Dukakis burning the flag. If Bush thinks that kind of thing has no place in the campaign, he lacks the gallantry to say so. He also lacks the candor to say straight out about his opponent what he suggests by innuendo.

Maybe this confession will just tar me as unpatriotic too, but nothing since I came of political age has depressed me so much about American democracy as the apparent success of Bush's pledge offensive. What, after all, is American patriotism about? It's not about purple mountain majesties -- they have those in Switzerland. There was endless babble about "freedom" at the Republican Convention. But freedom doesn't mean reciting a loyalty oath on command. They have that kind of freedom in the U.S.S.R. American freedom means the right not to recite a loyalty oath if -- for reasons of religion, politics or simple perversity -- you don't want to. Bush may reject this vision of American freedom, although it is shared by the Supreme Court. That is his privilege: it's a free country. It is not his privilege to imply that anyone who disagrees with him is unpatriotic.

The Bush campaign claims to be running on "issues," while the Democrats emphasize mere "personalities." But these are issues of a peculiar sort. The two Bush has chosen to stress -- reciting the pledge in schools and state prison furlough policy -- have nothing to do with the duties of the President of the U.S. (Republicans, as federalism enthusiasts, ordinarily would be eager to point this out.) Bush in fact is virtually ignoring real issues. He's running on emotions.

That's fair enough. Emotions are a valid part of a presidential campaign. (So, for that matter, are personalities.) But the emotions Bush is stirring up in the name of American patriotism are ugly and -- dare I say it -- un- American. What unites the pledge nonsense, the furlough business, the attacks on the American Civil Liberties Union, the scare stories about a race of mythic bogeymen called liberals is an effort to induce a fever of "us" vs. "them" majoritarianism.

Most voters are happy to salute the flag, aren't in prison, aren't members of the unpopular minorities the A.C.L.U. looks out for, aren't the social losers for whom Bush's fantasy liberals are plotting expensive new Government programs. You can always evoke the emotions of normal people against the great "other" and call it patriotism. Politicians in many countries have used this technique successfully. But American patriotism is supposed to be inclusive and tolerant, not exclusive and invidious.

George Bush knows this too, or at least his speechwriter does. "I want a kinder, gentler nation," he said. Washington is still debating whether Bush really is the generous-spirited character he intermittently displayed in his acceptance speech. I'm agnostic on that one. But even Bush's critics don't believe he's really the hate-filled demagogue of his current Mr. Hyde phase. He seems, rather, to have made a Faustian bargain: my soul for the presidency. Several of Bush's campaign advisers are well suited to the role of Mephistopheles.

Bush's patriotism is spurious for another reason. It's no-cost patriotism that demands nothing other than self-satisfaction, emotional and material. The Bush-style patriot may refuse to pay more taxes, in fact may demand new tax breaks, while clinging to every Government benefit he now enjoys. The Bush- style patriot may call for an assertion of American power but needn't put his own body on the line; he may be "proud" of service writing press releases in Indiana. And the Bush-style patriot can measure his patriotism by his intolerance of people and opinions he doesn't like.

"My opponent's view of the world sees a long slow decline for our country," says Bush. In truth, Dukakis' campaign weltanschauung is as fatuously sunny as Bush's. And Dukakis, like Bush, asks nothing of voters except to lie back and enjoy it. Those who do fear that American civilization might be on a downward slope think the inability of our leaders to make any demands whatsoever of citizens to protect our freedom and prosperity is both evidence and engine of that decline. They find know-nothing remarks like the Vice President's reaction to the shooting down of the Iranian civilian airliner -- "I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don't care what the facts are" -- a sign of national insecurity, not national self- confidence. To those who love America enough to worry about it, George Bush's ask-not-what-you-can-do-for-your-countr y flag-waving is the opposite of patriotism.