President Bush has missed no opportunity to wrap himself in the flag since last Monday's Supreme Court decision overturning a law that outlawed flag desecration. But with memories of his exploitation of the flag issue in the 1988 campaign still fresh, his behavior suggests he is trying to have it both ways politically.
Candidate Bush's trip to a New Jersey flag factory in 1988 drew ridicule for milking the Pledge of Allegiance controversy against Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis. His flag-draped ceremony at the Iwo Jima Memorial last June, shortly after the court declared that flag burning was protected speech under the Constitution, evoked fresh criticism over his willingness to politicize an emotional debate pitting the symbol of the flag against the sanctity of the Bill of Rights.
In the wake of the court's latest decision, the reactions to those two events have acted as a brake on presidential advisers, who are prepared to jump on the issue politically by pushing a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration but would like to shield the president from a new round of criticism while doing it.
"They're going to try to do a good-cop, bad-cop number," said Michael McCurry, communications director for the Democratic National Committee in recalling how Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) emerged from a White House meeting with Bush last week waving a miniature flag and talking about 30-second campaign spots. "It must be astonishingly embarrassing for the minority leader to be turned into a flag-waving bumpkin by the White House.
"They're perilously close to flag factoryville from the 1988 campaign," he added.
Ironically, the Republican efforts to seize the issue politically come even though party operatives are divided over the power of the flag debate in this fall's campaigns.
The most revealing example of Bush's approach to the issue occurred Thursday when he made a 6:30 a.m. visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was met by four park rangers and an Eagle Scout. He watched silently as one flag was lowered from the flagpole and then stood at attention as a new flag, which had earlier flown over the White House, was raised. When the ceremony was over, Bush was asked whether he wanted to say anything. "No," he replied.
By 7 a.m., the president was back at the White House -- and the networks had their presidential images for the morning shows and evening newscasts.
Asked why Bush had used the Vietnam memorial as a backdrop for a politically inspired photo-op, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said, "He went to the memorial because he thought it was an appropriate way to pay tribute to the flag and to commemorate Flag Day."
Was Bush deliberately low key to avoid criticism about exploiting the issue? "It never came up," said Sig Rogich, the White House image-maker who accompanied Bush to the memorial. "It was never a concern."
But earlier in the week, presidential advisers considered and rejected staging a much larger Flag Day event, apparently fearing it would prompt comparisons with the flag factory visit of 1988 or last year's Iwo Jima event.
Bush has strong personal feelings about the flag, growing out of his combat experience in World War II, according to advisers. And he has been consistent in his support for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. So when the court struck down the bill approved by Congress last year, the president was prepared to renew his campaign in behalf of the amendment.
A previously scheduled Tuesday visit to the White House by the sculptor of the Iwo Jima Memorial was quickly converted into a Rose Garden ceremony with a presidential flag statement that included this quote: "It's not a Democrat nor Republican issue. I don't see it as either liberal or conservative. It's an American issue."
Said a senior White House official the next day: "We're certainly willing to make it an issue. I don't think the Democrats will let that happen."
A Republican Party official said there is "no big grandiose plan" to turn the flag into a political issue but said it was ripe for "potential spontaneous combustion." Some Republican candidates already are rushing to use the issue, and Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has said repeatedly that the flag can be used by the party as a "values" issue to distinguish Republicans from Democrats.
Other party operatives, however, are convinced the issue has lost the punch it appeared to have a year ago, in the weeks after the Supreme Court's first flag ruling. While it could prove to be powerful in selected campaigns, they said, it is not likely to be a theme that resonates broadly with the public, despite polls showing clear support for an amendment.
"Only the Democrats can make it a political issue by being opposed to it," a White House official said.