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Star-Spangled Pandering

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Last month Justice Antonin Scalia was politely quizzed by Norman Pearlstine, the outgoing Time Inc. editor in chief. The event, held in Time Warner's New York headquarters, was supposedly off the record, but so much of it has already been reported that it will not hurt to add Scalia's views on flag burning. He explained why it was constitutionally protected speech. It's a pity Hillary Clinton was not there to hear him.

The argument that this famously conservative member of the Supreme Court advanced -- actually, reiterated -- was that while he may or may not approve of flag burning, it was clear to him that it was a form of speech, a way of making a political statement, and that the First Amendment protected it. I could not agree more.

Clinton, apparently, could not agree less. Along with Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, she has introduced a bill that would make flag burning illegal. It is probably important to note that this is not a proposed constitutional amendment, and it is written in a cutesy way that does not explicitly outlaw all flag burnings -- just those intended to "intimidate any person or group of persons." That's a distinction without a difference to your average police officer. Not many cops belong to the ACLU.

The ubiquitous Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia quotemeister -- need a quote/do not tarry/call U-Va. and ask for Larry -- opines that Clinton is readying herself for a presidential run by adjusting her tint, toning down the blue and heightening the red. He fancies that Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's incipient presidential campaign is already pushing Clinton to the center. A New York Times editorial reached a similar conclusion. It suggested that she was "pandering" to the 70 percent of Americans who think outlawing flag burning is a dandy idea.

Well, maybe so and maybe not. It's clear that Clinton is going to have to modify her image if she's really serious about running for president. (She is, by the way.) At the moment, key interest groups rate her pretty much as they do the Senate's most recognizable liberal, Ted Kennedy. What's more, she is the semi-official banshee of right-wing fantasies, the insidious wife of the sumptuously immoral Bill Clinton and the pillow-talkie architect of that Bolshie health care plan of some years back. Already, at least nine venomous books have been done on her. I would not be surprised if even now someone at Fox News is working on a book about "How Hillary Stole Christmas."

But the real Hillary Clinton may be someone unmentioned in those books. "She is one of the most conservative friends I have," one of her pals told me. Bear in mind I was talking to a Democrat, so we are not talking Phyllis Schlafly here, but still, Hillary Clinton is hardly anyone's stereotype of a liberal. For one thing, she is religious and not merely in a church-on-Sunday sort of way. She relied on her faith in the darkest days of her husband's impeachment and the revelations of his sexual shenanigans. This is a lady who prays.

She has also articulated a moderate, somewhat ruminative position on abortion. It is rueful, insistent on "choice" but regretful about abortion in general. The same holds for the war in Iraq. Clinton voted to authorize it, and she has yet to call for a pullout of U.S. troops. If she is uncertain, hesitant -- not sure if a withdrawal would do a lot more harm than good -- then I welcome her to the club of Iraq agnostics.

In this and other examples, political observers discern political posturing. Maybe they are right. Whatever the case, though, the flag bill along with other examples of Clinton's willingness to court political reactionaries raises disturbing questions about who, exactly, she is. Consistency is not always to be admired in a politician, but when a supposed liberal is one of only two senators to sponsor a bill to restrict freedom of speech, then we are talking about something basic. If this is a pander, it is in the worst possible taste.

The First Amendment is where you simply do not go. It is sacred. It protects our most cherished rights -- religion, speech, press and assembly -- and while I sometimes turn viscerally angry when I see the flag despoiled, my emotions are akin to what I feel when neo-Nazis march. Repugnant or not, popular or not, it is all political speech. Her sponsorship of the flag measure calls for reconsideration all around -- either by Hillary Clinton and her support of the flag bill or by liberals and their support of her.

cohenr@washpost.com

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