Obama and McCain on patriotism

Candidates try to deepen the debate

It’s almost inconceivable that a leading candidate for the presidency should have to defend his patriotism, but clearly Sen. Barack Obama felt he needed to do so. That he delivered his speech on patriotism on July 1, just days before Americans commemorate the birth of their nation, and in the town of Independence, Mo., gave symbolic resonance to his comments.

By now most people have heard the prominent sound bite that came from that speech: “I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.” That’s a powerfully insistent statement, but there was much more to the speech than that.

Throughout America’s history, Obama said, leaders have had their patriotism challenged. He mentioned Thomas Jefferson, who was accused of “selling out to the French,” and John Adams, charged with being “in cahoots with the British, intent on restoring monarchical rule.” And presidents have sometimes used patriotism to justify “questionable practices,” such as FDR’s internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

Today’s patriotism debate, he said, is rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s, in arguments that go back 40 years or more. Civil-rights and anti-Vietnam-War activists were unfairly accused of being un-American for dissenting, but some among them then turned around and attacked “the symbols, and in extreme cases the very idea of America itself, by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and, perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.”

Most Americans, Obama said, didn’t buy into “these simplistic worldviews, these caricatures of left and right. Most Americans understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic, and most Americans understand that there’s nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America’s traditions and institutions.”

Patriotism includes respect for America’s past, its mistakes as well as its triumphs, and also love of its ideals, he said. “I believe those who attack America’s flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand America.”

And then he quoted Mark Twain, “that greatest of American satirists and proud son of Missouri": “Patriotism is supporting your country at all times and your government when it deserves it.”

Obama’s opponent, Sen. John McCain, also had some meaningful things to say about patriotism this week. Writing in Time magazine, he said patriotism “thrives in the communal spaces where government is absent, anywhere Americans come together to govern their lives and their communities—in families, churches, synagogues, museums, symphonies, the Little League, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army or the VFW. … Patriotism is countless acts of love, kindness and courage that have no witness or heraldry and are especially commendable because they are unrecorded. …

“Love of country,” he continued, “is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen—a truth I learned a long time ago in a country very different from ours. Patriotism is another way of saying service to a cause greater than self-interest.”

He encouraged those who find fault with their country to make it a better one, those who are disappointed with the mistakes of government to “join its ranks and work to correct them. … The good citizen and patriot knows happiness is greater than comfort, more sublime than pleasure. The cynical and indifferent know not what they miss.”

Words to ponder—and respect—on this Fourth of July in election year 2008.