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Pins and Panders
Obama Wears His Independence on His Lapel

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sometimes I think the best thing about Barack Obama is that little empty space on his lapel. It is where other politicians wear the American flag pin, a kitschy piece of empty symbolism that tells you nothing about that particular person except that he or she thinks like everyone else. Obama's flag, invisible to the naked eye, is the Jolly Roger of a politician thinking for himself.

The flag pin issue arose last fall when someone noticed that Obama was campaigning in the patriotic nude. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, wearing the pin had become de rigueur for politicians. Obama, too, had worn the pin but took it off when he started "noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic." Some of these people, he said unconvincingly, were not voting for veterans' benefits and the like -- "not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time."

I suspect more to the point -- and much more important than votes on veterans' issues -- was Obama's sense that the flag pin, rather than representing patriotism, was an emblem of conformity and hypocrisy. Richard Nixon, for instance, sported one while undermining the Constitution and, in private, cursing all sorts of minority groups. And history does not record whether his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, took his off on the solemn occasions when he received bribes in the White House. Somehow, the flag pin did not improve the character of either man.

Obama better expressed his feelings later in the campaign when, during a Democratic debate on April 16, he was asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson why he didn't sport the lapel pin and he answered, if I may paraphrase, that the flag flew in his heart.

"Well, look, I revere the American flag," he said. "And I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country. I would not be standing here if it wasn't for this country. And I've said this -- again, there's no other country in which my story is even possible." He is, as countless foreigners will attest, a resplendent emblem of American possibilities.

Many people will read a lot of meaning into Obama's refusal to wear the pin. Some will see it as a lack of patriotism, an emotional distance from the country that has served him so well. Others, such as I, will see it as an expression of cool, the statement of a candidate who wants to be president but not at the cost of his intellectual integrity. And still others (me again) will see it as Obama's push-back, his reluctance to do something simply because it is demanded of him.

An allergy to cant can be an admirable quality in a politician, although not necessarily a politically smart one. Obama, for example, is right to label Hillary Clinton's proposal to have the government lift the gas tax this summer as "a classic Washington gimmick." Still, gimmicks like this win votes.

If Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee, such eruptions of common sense could cost him. For instance, he got an A on my Ethanol Test of Political Integrity for telling Tim Russert that "if it turns out that we've got to make changes in our ethanol policy to help people get something to eat, then that's got to be the step we take." Such candor may not go down well in the Farm Belt. Obama did not exactly denounce government ethanol subsidies, and he did praise ethanol as "an important transitional tool for us to start dealing with our long-term energy crisis," but what was refreshingly missing was the usual pandering about the consummate (and mostly fictional) virtues of ethanol.

This column would itself be an exercise in pandering if it did not acknowledge that, on occasion, Obama can practice the old politics with the best of them. He's been all over the place on gun control, and he's been backpedaling and fudging about Jeremiah Wright for some time. After all, it was back in January that the Obama campaign was informed that Wright had praised Louis Farrakhan to high heaven, ignoring the Nation of Islam leader's anti-Semitism -- and not just recently, as Obama has said.

Still, it is bracing to see a presidential candidate recoil, for the most part, from the orthodoxies of pandering. In this regard, the lack of a flag pin has become an important sign of Obama's desire to think for himself. For all it says about Obama, I salute it.

cohenr@washpost.com

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