Joe Conason's Journal

Are so many American flags being incinerated in this country that Wesley Clark believes we must tamper with the Bill of Rights?

Published November 12, 2003 11:13PM (EST)

Clark strikes a match
Perhaps Wesley Clark feels he must downplay his intellectual credentials. That could explain why the former Rhodes scholar abandoned his courageous defense of dissent yesterday to endorse the flag-burning amendment while speaking at an American Legion post in New Hampshire. It was the kind of incident to which voters have long since grown accustomed in presidential campaigns: a smart man saying stupid things while pandering.

"I'm absolutely in favor of anything that strengthens the flag," Clark told the veterans, as if defacing the Constitution with an amendment of this kind would "strengthen" the symbol of freedom. Does he really believe that? How many actual flag-burners has Clark encountered in his lifetime? Are so many flags being incinerated or otherwise defaced in this country that Clark believes we must tamper with the Bill of Rights? If so, then how is he different from John Ashcroft, another enthusiastic supporter of the amendment that would allow Congress to criminalize flag burning?

Frankly, I expect this kind of idiocy from the attorney general, who piped up in favor of several kooky "improvements" to the Constitution during his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate. But I did expect better of Clark, whose "new patriotism" speeches have criticized the Bush administration for demonizing dissenters. He seemed to understand that true patriotism demands more than waving the flag, and that true patriots don't persecute those who disagree -- regardless of how obnoxiously they choose to express themselves.

Indeed, the test of that deeper patriotism is the willingness to protect the rights of those who indulge in the most obnoxious opinions and displays. The nation's founders saw no reason to make any exceptions to the First Amendment's protection of free speech. I doubt that Clark, no matter how brilliant he thinks he is, can improve on that wise decision.

In one respect, however, Clark was fortunate in this particular gaffe (which can now be added to his collection). John Kerry, who is either running for president or stalking Howard Dean, said something even dumber in reaction to Clark's comments. He wanted to sound macho and patriotic, yet still sensitive to civil liberties. Get this:

"As I've said before, if I saw someone burning the flag, I'd punch them in the mouth because I love the flag, but the Constitution that I fought for preserves the right of free expression."

At least Kerry has voted consistently against the amendment. So has Joe Lieberman, awful and sanctimonious though he can be in full superpatriot mode. Meanwhile, Dennis Kucinich and Dick Gephardt have supported the amendment, no doubt while pandering to local veterans groups. They both must know better. (I'd love to hear the great dissenter Kucinich explain that vote.)

Not every military officer shares Clark's urge to amend the great founding document. He should heed the words of another retired general, who once explained: "The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away." Those words were spoken by Colin Powell.
[3 p.m. PST, November 12, 2003]

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