"Moreover, the integrity of the symbol {of the American flag} has been compromised by those leaders who seem to ... manipulate the symbol of national purpose into a pretext for partisan disputes about meaner ends." -- Justice John Paul Stevens, June 11

"It endangers the fabric of our country." -- President Bush, on flag burning, June 12

As a rule, the most interesting part of Supreme Court decisions is the dissent. This week, when the court reaffirmed its decision of a year ago that anti-flag-burning laws are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment, Justice Stevens once again dissented. Stevens argued that the government has a legitimate interest in defending the flag as a symbol of the nation even at the price of banning one particular mode of political expression -- namely, flag burning. But Stevens then went out of his way to chastise those politicians who agree with him but who he knows are about to go out and demagogue the issue.

And demagogue they will. Chief among them is the president. Last year he seized upon the public furor whipped up by the court's decision to wrap himself once again in the flag. He went to the Iwo Jima Memorial, courageously declared himself against flag burning ("Flag burning is wrong," he ventured) and called for a constitutional amendment to ban the practice.

With the president racing to catch up with the mob, Democrats were seized with the fear that if they did not join they would be branded unpatriotic. But they wanted to preempt a constitutional amendment. So they offered instead a simple law, the Flag Protection Act of 1989. Although struck down by the court this week, as everyone knew it would be, the law did serve its purpose: it gave the country a year's breathing spell in which to decide whether it really wanted the first ever amendment to the Bill of Rights.

Passions have cooled. But this is an election year, and the Republicans smell an issue. (Judging by their reaction to this one, smell appears to be their preferred faculty for political thinking.) Last year, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), ever the jokester, accused Democrats who resisted the constitutional amendment of "playing politics" with the flag. This year, ever the cynic, Dole notes that the flag issue "would make a pretty good 30-second spot."

"Democrats are definitely not going to get a free ride on this," warned Ed Rollins. "Defining values is very, very important." Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who lost a leg in Vietnam, was entirely right to call shameful the pretense that this issue is a debate about values, about whether one does or does not love the flag. If it is a debate about anything more than, as Justice Stevens intimates, the cynical manipulation of national symbols, it is about this: If one has to chose between the absolute integrity of the flag and the absolute integrity of the Bill of Rights, which does one choose?

"The question before us," argues Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), "is whether or not, after 200 years, the most effective statement of individual liberty in all human history is to be changed for the first time." And for what? The threat to the flag from some fringe publicity seeker is trivial. But the threat to the Constitution from this amendment and the grab bag of others that every frustrated politician wants to tag on to serve some narrow partisan interest is quite real. (After ERA, school prayer, anti-busing, human life, balanced budget and line-item veto, we are now being offered the 12-year limit on congressional terms. Spare us.)

The beauty and the power of the Constitution is that it does not advance partial, passing interests. It provides the structure within which such interests contend. It is a structure of surpassing grace and austerity. The only issue here is the Republican attempt to sully the pristine majesty of the Bill of Rights with an amendment addressed to a nonexistent problem and designed to create a phony "defining issue" for exploitation in 30-second spots.

Protecting the flag by government fiat has, of course, nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism, let alone love of country. Justice Scalia, arguably the most conservative member of the Court, found the Flag Protection act unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren, father of Miranda and conservative nemesis, made clear in a 1969 opinion that he had no problem upholding such a law. What now? Impeach Antonin Scalia?

On Tuesday in the Supreme Soviet, editor Sergei Zalygin criticized a proposed Soviet anti-censorship law on the grounds that the Soviet Union needed instead true freedom of speech as embodied in the American Bill of Rights. Every country has a flag. No other country has the Bill of Rights. A document revered universally, down to the precincts of the Kremlin, for its clarity, purity and power, is now to be adorned with the small-mindedness of the Bush caveat.

Let it be called that. If a constitutional amendment banning flag burning passes, it should forever bear the name of George Bush. Like other acts of politically expedient legislative folly that have forever stamped their zealous authors with opprobrium and ridicule -- the Volstead Act enforcing prohibition, for example -- let this one be remembered to history as the Bush Amendment. It would be fitting punishment.