Richard Reeves

Why We Wave the Flag

This column in somewhat different form appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 1.

In the first Gallup Poll published after the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy's approval rating jumped 10 points to 83 percent. The commander in chief looked at the numbers -- the disapproval was only 5 percent -- and said, "The worse you do, the better they like you."

Not exactly. But as President George W. Bush learned when his approval rating touched 90 percent last week, Americans rally 'round the flag when it begins to dip. We may think of ourselves as being fiercely independent as individuals, but history comes down on the side of team spirit when "USA!" takes the field in crisis.

In other places, when things go wrong, ministers resign and directors are fired. In Washington, after what has to be considered a colossal intelligence failure, the president rushed over to the Central Intelligence Agency to tell the folks there that he appreciates the great job they're doing. Kennedy did too, in public, but then moved people around a few months after the Cuban fiasco, which was a CIA operation from beginning to end.

It has always been that way. After watching the Independence Day parade in Albany, N.Y., on July 4, 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, taking notes for "Democracy in America," wrote:

"Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused."

Actually, the rule does not apply only to foreigners. One of the most popular men in the country's history, William Jennings Bryan, paid the price for questioning a president's wisdom in a time of war. The Great Commoner, three times the Democratic candidate for president, resigned as President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state in June 1915 because he believed the president was secretly planning to take us into the Great War raging in Europe. He began a speaking tour around the country to promote peace and neutralism. But he didn't finish it -- jeers, curses and tomatoes drove him from the national stage.

You also don't have to be that big a man to lose your job -- or be threatened by the White House if you don't shut up. Early casualties this time included Dan Guthrie, a columnist for the Daily Courier of Grants Pass, Ore., who accused President Bush and some of his advisers of "hiding in a Nebraska hole" as the World Trade Center toppled and the Pentagon was bombed on Sept. 11. The Texas City Sun in the president's home state ran a front-page apology for "an opinion by an employee." The offending opinion was that of city editor Tom Gutting, who wrote a column under the headline "Bush Has Failed to Lead U.S."

Even comedians were not exempt from the patriotism monitors this time. Bill Maher, the host of "Politically Incorrect," lived up to his show's title one night after Sept. 11 by saying, "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." Two days later, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attacked Maher and warned others, saying: "Americans ... need to watch what they say, what they do, and this is not the time for remarks like that; there never is."

Some of the readers of this column certainly seem to agree with that. I, too, thought it was a mistake for President Bush not to go to Washington or New York on the first day. I thought popping up on television in Louisiana and Nebraska gave comfort to that other superpower: fear. The e-mails I have received, more than 500 so far, emphasized these words: "traitor" ... "revolting" ... "moron" ... "puking venom" ... disgusting" ... "disgrace" ... "commie" ... "partisan scum." One guy offered to buy my home if I would agree to leave the country and never return. Another, in Baton Rouge, La., said he was organizing an advertisers' boycott of the local paper, The Advocate, until it dropped my column.

None of this is really new. We are a self-created nation driven to defend our own masterwork. Being an American is not a matter of geography or bloodlines. America is a matter of ideas, the rejection of an Old World of standards we thought corrupt. Monsieur de Tocqueville, a visitor from that Old World, spotted that, too, writing in his diary:

"For fifty years, the inhabitants of the United States have been repeatedly and constantly told that they are the only religious, enlightened and free people. ... They have an immensely high opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of the human race."

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