Flagging Rhetoric

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Monday, July 3, 2006

THERE ARE TWO things to be thankful for in the recent flag waving over flag burning. The first and most important is that this politically timed effort to amend the First Amendment failed in the Senate, albeit by a single vote. The second is that the threatened four days of more-patriotic-than-thou chest-thumping were truncated to two -- which was two more than the Senate ought to have spent on this phony issue.

As these kinds of amendments tend to do, the flag-burning debate managed to bring out some of the worst in politicians of both parties. Take, for example, the smarmy statement put out by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) after the amendment's defeat.

"Old Glory lost today," Mr. Frist said, starting on a low note and heading lower. "At a time when our armed services are defending America's freedom in the war on terror, it's unfortunate that a minority of my colleagues blocked this amendment." We don't know which is more repugnant: Mr. Frist's cynical invocation of troops "defending America's freedom" as an excuse for limiting freedom of speech or his insinuation that it was dirty filibuster-like tactics that killed the amendment when, in fact, the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote.

The majority leader went on to inveigh against the "activist Supreme Court decision" that invalidated flag-burning laws. Perhaps Mr. Frist should read the ruling -- or at least take a look at the lineup. Among the "activists" in the five-justice majority was archconservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Not that Mr. Frist's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), was exactly a profile in courage on this issue. "I don't think it's the right time to bring up the issue," Mr. Reid said. So why break with the majority of his party to support it? "I'm confident it won't pass," Mr. Reid explained. There's a principled stand.

If there is a hero in this episode, it is the man who would succeed Mr. Frist as leader, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Mr. McConnell could have put the amendment over the top by abandoning his opposition. To his credit, he didn't, and he was joined by two other Republicans, Sens. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) and Robert F. Bennett (Utah). As Mr. McConnell explained in a column posted on his Senate Web site, "No act of speech is so obnoxious that it merits tampering with our First Amendment. Our Constitution, and our country, is stronger than that."

Too bad 66 fellow senators (52 Republicans and 14 Democrats) don't think so.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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