Members of Congress observed Flag Day yesterday with a spirited and sometimes acrimonious running debate over whether to adopt a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag.
In a series of floor speeches and in dueling rallies with numerous flags and the Capitol serving as backdrops, lawmakers jockeyed for media attention and political advantage on an emotional issue that seems certain to transfix Congress for the next several weeks.
Spurred by this week's Supreme Court decision overturning a statute that outlawed flag desecration, the House and Senate are moving toward quick consideration of a flag protection amendment that must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both chambers and then ratified by 38 state legislatures.
President Bush, who has called for passage of an amendment, kept his distance from the debate yesterday, though he did make an early morning visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to raise a flag there.
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association jumped into the dispute yesterday, charging that a flag amendment "would erode the most basic right of freedom of expression and create a dangerous precedent." ABA President L. Stanley Chauvin Jr. vowed to lobby against any amendment with the full force of the group's 360,000 members.
But on a day rich with symbolism and with November's congressional elections as a subtext, the main flag battleground was Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers said an amendment to the Constitution was a simple, harmless device to protect the nation's preeminent symbol and others called it an assault on the Bill of Rights and its guarantee of free speech.
It was a day in which lawmakers who distinguished themselves with valor in combat found themselves on opposite sides as they debated what the flag ultimately means.
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a Medal of Honor winner who lost a foot in Vietnam, bitterly denounced Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) for what Kerrey called an attempt to politicize the issue and use it to "divide the nation."
Brandishing a photo of Bush and Dole at a White House meeting -- in which the two men were laughing as Bush pointed at a small flag held by Dole -- Kerrey said "I'm offended the president thought this was a laughing matter. . . . That desecrates the flag."
Appearing later at a rally outside the Capitol, Dole -- who was grievously wounded in World War II and lost the use of one arm -- insisted the amendment drive is nonpartisan and designed only to "give our flag the protection it deserves" without infringing on free speech.
"We are not here to demagogue for anything or for anyone," said Dole, a reference to an earlier statement by an unnamed White House official who said that Bush "is not going to demagogue on this. That's what he's got Dole for."
House Republicans, appearing at a separate rally in front of an 8-by-10-foot flag, were more forthcoming on the potential political advantages of pushing for a flag protection amendment. "It's a definitional question," said Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has sometimes been criticized for the contrast between his hawkish politics and his lack of a military service record. "There are some Democrats who represent a kind of Hollywood-New York liberalism who will vote against it," added Gingrich, who received college and marriage draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
Democrats responded by lambasting Bush for what they called politicizing the flag. Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), recalling that he had "jumped into combat with the flag sewed on my left shoulder," said he wondered if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison "could have possibly imagined that the United States would have . . . a president so frightened about the outcome of the next election that he wants to weaken the Bill of Rights."
Sanford's criticism was echoed at an ABA news conference here by former solicitor general Erwin Griswold, who charged that the Bush administration is taking a shortsighted, political view on a question that goes to "maintaining the integrity of this country."
Griswold, who served in the Nixon administration, said Bush has "responded too quickly and too readily to some of his political advisers who saw during the last election campaign what a potent vote-getter wrapping yourself in the flag was."
Griswold said he was "very sorry" about the stance Attorney General Dick Thornburgh has taken, adding later that it is up to the attorney general to advise the president on the long view on such issues.
"But if you are an attorney general who has ambitions for the presidency," Griswold said, "maybe you are taking the shorter view."
The ABA's policy-making body voted unanimously last August to oppose any flag desecration amendment.