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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 06/17/2008

The great flag pin debate

By Michael Dobbs

To wear or not to wear.

"You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest."
--Barack Obama, quoted by ABC News, October 4, 2007.

"Sometimes I wear a tie, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I wear a flag pin, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I like a burger and a beer. Sometimes a glass of wine and a steak is good."
--Barack Obama, NBC Nightly News, May 8, 2008.

Anybody notice how the American flag pin has become an almost permanent part of Barack Obama's wardrobe these days? A few months ago, the Land-of-Lincolner rarely, if ever, wore the flag pin. Then he started wearing a pin occasionally, depicting it as a matter of personal whim, like opting for a beer as opposed to a glass of wine. Nowadays, you rarely see the presumptive Democratic nominee without a shiny metal flag in his lapel, bearing witness to his patriotism. By contrast, his Republican rival, John McCain, rarely wears a flag pin.

What is going on here?

The Facts

The great flag pin saga began in October 2007 when an alert reporter for an ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, noticed something missing from the lapel of Obama's suit. "You don't have the American flag pin on," the reporter told the Democratic candidate. "Is that a fashion statement?"

Obama explained that he stopped wearing a flag pin soon after 9/11, when it became a "substitute" for true patriotism. Rather than wear a flag pin, he told the reporter, he preferred to speak out "on issues that are of importance to our national security." Right wing commentators were outraged. "Why do we wear pins?" asked the pin-wearing Sean Hannity of Fox News. "Because our country is under attack.

"It just shows you that he's not ready for the big time," chimed in fellow commentator Laura Ingraham.

The pin-wearing debate reached the height of absurdity with the Democratic debate from Philadelphia in April when the non-pin-wearing master of ceremonies, Charles Gibson, interrogated Obama on the subject. The Illinois senator dismissed the question as a "manufactured issue," but noted that he "wore one yesterday when a veteran handed it to me." Flag pins began showing up on Obama's lapels more and more frequently from that moment onwards.

By May, Obama was linking his flag pin choices to his morning dressing routine. "Sometimes [the flag pin] ends up being on another suit. If it ends up being on another suit, I might leave it one day, but it's something that I've done before and I'll certainly wear it again."

When I asked Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor to explain the reasons for the candidate's flag pin choices, he referred me back to the May 2008 "Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don't" statement. It would seem that the flag pin has become exactly what Obama feared it would become: a "substitute" for true patriotism, a totem-like symbol to ward off evil gossip.

The Pinocchio Test

Barack Obama is unconvincing when he claims that his decision on whether or not to wear the flag in his lapel comes down to the suit he is wearing on any particular day. Political campaigns spend untold hours obsessing over such image questions. A more plausible explanation for his embrace of the flag pin is that he wants to defuse the patriotism debate. John McCain, who spent five years in POW camps in Vietnam, feels no need to demonstrate his patriotism on his lapel.

What a strange election campaign this is!

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | June 17, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch  
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