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Capturing The Flag

But the Flag Code remains. And so does the ubiquitous use of the banner's image on a multitude of commercial products, including lapel pins. The controversy during the Democratic primary contest over Obama's only occasional use of the pin -- which many politicians have routinely worn since 9/11 -- is an instructive example of the role of flag-waving patriotism in politics today, as well as the peculiarity of the Flag Code.

Obama was grilled about his failure to regularly sport a flag pin by Charles Gibson of ABC News during an April debate. Advisers to Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain agreed that it could become "a major vulnerability if you're the candidate in November," Gibson said. "How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?"

Obama came back with a spirited defense of his love of country and his patriotism. He called the lapel-pin question a distraction from the serious issues facing the country. But although the focus on that particular piece of the senator's attire ebbed as he wrapped up the Democratic nomination, rumors questioning the first African American presidential nominee's patriotism have continued to dog his campaign.

The lapel-pin flap is little more than a political ploy. Does anyone seriously believe that a popular U.S. Senator from the Midwest does not love his country because he doesn't (or didn't) wear a flag pin every time he puts on a suit? But since this non-issue involves the American flag, it receives loads of media attention and resonates with those who want to believe the worst about Obama. Accusations about his lapel-pin usage and his patriotism were big factors behind the wide-ranging and historically grounded speech Obama made last week in Independence, Mo.

Left mostly unremarked, though, is the fact that the senator's lapel now regularly features a flag pin.

Should it? Title IV, Chapter 1, Section 8 of the code states: "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." But it then goes on to add: "The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart." So the code is against the use of the flag on commercial products but also tells us where to wear our flag lapel pins -- which, last time I checked, are commercial products.

No wonder we're all confused. Those contradictory words come from a document written in 1923 by a group of people who loved this country and thought that prohibiting the commercial use of the flag's image would help protect the banner itself. But things are murkier today. The Flag Code is on the books but often ignored. Political discourse on what it means to love one's country takes place on stages nearly blindingly laden with large flags. The debate about patriotism isn't about the flag -- except that it is.

As for the U.S. Flag Code, it's time for Congress to amend it. Let the code bless flag lapel pins and every other flag-bedecked item that allows Americans to express their patriotism -- even if the items are made in China. But that's another story.

Marc Leepson is the author of " Flag: An American Biography."

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