In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis found himself squarely on the political defensive over his veto, as governor, of a bill requiring Massachusetts public school teachers to lead their classes in the pledge of allegiance. Dukakis's principal explanation was bloodless and lame: he had learned the state's highest court would probably declare the proposed law unconstitutional. If Franklin Roosevelt's reasoning had been equally flawed, FDR would have vetoed his own New Deal before the Supreme Court did.

Later, in that 1988 emotional brawl over traditional values and patriotism, Dukakis counterproductively relied upon the legalistic footnotes and ibids of Ivy League constitutional scholars.

But now two years after Dukakis lost that debate and the fall election to George Bush, Capitol Hill Democrats showed in defeating a Bush-backed constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning that they had learned an awful lot. Call it an attack of the smarts, but this time congressional Democrats refused to treat the flag debate as some graduate school seminar. Democrats instead answered the Republicans' "value" of protecting the flag with a passionate "value" of their own -- protecting the Bill of Rights.

For one of the few times in these recurring cultural-political brawls, Democrats grasped that the Messenger -- the person making your case -- can be even more influential and important than the Message -- the case that is being made. Among the most prominent Democratic messengers were Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and John Glenn of Ohio. House Democrats give special credit for defeat of the amendment to the leadership of Reps. David Bonior of Michigan and David Skaggs of Colorado.

What these men all have in common is that each of them wore his nation's uniform in time of war. Terry Sanford, the former president of Duke University, volunteered as a paratrooper to jump behind German lines. Dale Bumpers, as a scared but proud 18-year-old, left Marine boot camp for the war in the Pacific. Before he orbited the earth, Marine John Glenn flew 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea, and his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire on 12 different occasions. David Bonior served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972 during the Vietnam War and David Skaggs, a Marine, went from Yale to Vietnam in 1968.

Bob Kerrey -- who won this nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, as leader of a Navy Seal team in Vietnam -- effectively "froze" the right-wing linebackers on the flag fight. Query: How do you, if you're Newt Gingrich, question the patriotism of somebody who opposes the flag amendment but who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam when you spent Vietnam (which you call "the right war at the right time") on American campuses earning three degrees? Answer: you and your non-veteran colleagues find yourselves rhetorically disarmed by a Bob Kerrey, for whom war is not an abstract policy option but is the stench of death, the sound of suffering and the reality of pain.

In fairness to Gingrich, many of his current colleagues took advantage during Vietnam of the educational deferments that had as their elitist assumption that the intelligent and the privileged had no responsibility to defend their country. Educational deferments were a boon to American graduate schools. Between 1965 and 1970, graduate school enrollment increased by nearly 50 percent. Male enrollment in U.S. law schools reached a peak in 1972 (just before the end of the draft) and has been declining ever since.

Increasingly John Glenn, Bob Kerrey and Terry Sanford are the exceptions in the national legislature. Yes, every president since Harry Truman has served in the U.S. military, but fewer than 10 percent of male members of Congress 45 or younger have ever worn the uniform. And those who favored escalation without personal participation in Vietnam are too reminiscent of the British scholar Heathcote William Gerard, who responded to criticism about his not fighting in the Great War by answering, "Madam, I am the civilization they are fighting to defend."

Because the Democrats took on the fight and had as their advocates men who are manifestly comfortable in the company of patriotism, they prevailed. In the fall of 1990, you won't be able to win just by yelling "Fire!" in a crowded flag factory. The Democrats, led by House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell proved they have moved into the post-Dukakis era.