Next year, the leader of the free world and such other statesmen as Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill.) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) will be making speeches celebrating the bicentennial of the nation's soul, the Bill of Rights. And if the passion to pass the 27th Amendment to the Constitution proves to be as sustained as its supporters predict, these and other patriots may even be able by the end of next year to pass out copies -- children first -- of the new disfigured edition of the Constitution, which would include this resounding addition:

"The Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the Flag of the United States."

Toward the end of his dissent in the most recent flag-burning cases, Justice John Paul Stevens spoke of how "the integrity of the symbol {of the flag} has been compromised by those leaders who seem to advocate compulsory worship of the flag even by individuals whom it offends, or who seem to manipulate the symbol of national purpose into a pretext for partisan disputes about meaner ends."

As if on cue, Senate minority leader Dole noted that a legislator's vote against a constitutional amendment to protect the flag "would make a pretty good 30-second spot" for whoever opposes that legislator this fall.

And Marc Nuttle, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also confirmed Justice Stevens' dour observation by telling The Wall Street Journal: "This is one of the value conflicts that allows us to make a true comparison between parties and candidates. This is a real opportunity."

But what are the values involved?

This delight in desecrating the First Amendment is not strictly a division between the parties. John Buckley, a sometimes ruthless gladiator for the Republicans, indicates that there are partisan "values" he cannot square with his conscience: "Democrats who get on the wrong side of this may face political oblivion, but Republicans who exploit it ought to face intellectual hell."

There appears, however, to be no fear of future torment on the part of such Republican candidates as Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), who hopes to use a flagpole to defenestrate Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) this fall. "On a system of values that matters," she says, "here is one of the places we differ."

Among the Democrats, Biden continues to play three-card monte with the flag protection issue. With the aid of several overly resilient law school professors, he designed the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which the court has now turned into a very small footnote in the law books.

Biden introduced that statute in order to sidetrack what seemed at the time a stampede toward congressional passage of an amendment to the Constitution. It was a disingenuous bill, pretending that it is possible to make flag desecration expressionless and thereby beyond the protection of the First Amendment.

Now Biden has set up his card table again, pledging to use his crafty skills "to determine how to best fashion an amendment that doesn't do violence to the Constitution's First Amendment."

There is no way to do that. Anyone desecrating the flag is saying something. To punish the desecration is to diminish the First Amendment -- just as preventing Nazis from demon strating in Skokie would have weakened the First Amendment.

Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.) is a far better constitutionalist than the president of the United States or Biden. "The Bill of Rights," Humphrey says, "is a list of things that the government may not do, and one of these is to limit speech. I don't want it diluted for any purpose."

But few in or out of Congress speak as honestly on this as Humphrey because, as Sen. Robert Kerrey (D-Neb.) says, this is "not America's finest hour."

There is still a little time, however, to avoid making the Bicentennial of the First Amendment a farce.