- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

I’m almost afraid to ask, the question being so three decades ago, but just where is Sen. John F. Kerry’s flag? The American flag. Old Glory.

There: I have just waved it by asking the question. So sorry. We journalists just don’t go in for that sort of thing. Why even revisit the sore issue of who, by dint of his lapelware, is more patriotic, Brit Hume or Bill Moyers? (I do have an opinion regarding those anchors, but, being fair and balanced, I’m suppressing it.)

Back to Sen. Comeback, victor of the Iowa caucuses and now, famously, New Hampshire.

I know: When you squint your eyes toward that thingie on his lapel, visible when he’s circuitously responding to Tim Russert’s sharp questions, it does look like an American flag and probably is. Even when he’s in some room facing a network camera, the Stars and Stripes are usually propped behind his shoulder. War hero cred, definitely.

I’m thinking, rather, of the place where, arguably, displaying the flag would show the best possible authenticity, his campaign headquarters. Mr. Kerry rents a stately Stanton Park townhouse (in previous eras, according to The Washington Post, occupied by the Heritage Foundation and Woodrow Wilson) to serve as his HQ.

Inside, Kerry staffers beaver away among the usual campaign artifacts — including a prized photo of the younger, antiwar John Kerry posing with John Lennon — toward the day of the senator’s presidential triumph.

I know about the building’s interior because, not long ago, I scouted it with a real estate agent, looking for new headquarters for my own operation.

Last winter, as I took the helm of the National Journalism Center, I lived temporarily on Constitution Avenue, about a block and a half from Mr. Kerry’s campaign address. I would walk by, sometimes schlepping my laundry to the Korean cleaning establishment across the street. I began to notice something. Or not notice something.

The building, Mr. Kerry’s building, had a flagpole. A nude flagpole.

Days and weeks went by, and the pole remained flagless. Why on Earth did this nag at me? I train aspiring young journalists in the nation’s capital to look for substance over style. I know about last refuges of scoundrels and all that. Surely all those Kerry staffers have better things to beaver away at than run a flag up and down the pole at sunup and sundown.

Indeed, at our erstwhile offices on Maryland Avenue, the National Journalism Center did not hoist a flag. But we had no flagpole in front of our building. Mr. Kerry, the onetime military officer, did. Why not use it? Weren’t officers trained in flag protocol, requiring a daily display?

Suddenly the semiotics became important. I remembered how the previous President Bush rubbed Michael Dukakis’ face in the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag-burning amendment. Was John Kerry tone-deaf to such symbolism?

Finally I called, only to be navigated through the Kerry campaign’s voice mail, there to identify myself and sheepishly ask a press aide about the flagless pole. No call back. So I blogged.

Sometime last summer, now driving by Stanton Park, I noticed it: the flag in all its glory snapping proudly in front of Mr. Kerry’s building. It remained there for the next several weeks. No, I wouldn’t take credit (though I do wonder if one of the beavers, doing Internet research, found my blog and rushed upstairs demanding preventive action). So I blogged again, giving credit where due.

Then last fall, my spirits flagged (sorry). The banner wasn’t there and remained not there right up until Wednesday, the day after Iowa, when you would think an exuberant staffer would have hoisted it anew. During this period, my associate and I even joked that, Howard Dean clearly running away with the nomination (who knew?), the mood inside the building must have been flagging (sorry). Why bother with unfelt patriotism?

Lesson for both journalists and politicians: Symbolism anticipates substance. Here’s a candidate with a serious shot at his party’s nomination, indeed the presidency. He fought valiantly in one war, then opposed it. He deserved that sweet meeting in Iowa with the Green Beret whose life he saved, though many Vietnamese-Americans wonder why he helped pull the plug on U.S. efforts to save their country. He voted for the war in Iraq and now tries to talk his way out of that.

Americans — especially the overwhelming number of veterans disinclined to crowd around him on out on the hustings — legitimately may see a pattern of combatus interruptus here, perhaps not the best way to extricate us from a difficult war. But the revived senator continues his march, giving speeches about the “full measure” his activists will bring to his campaign — a nice attempt to lend Lincolnesque substance to those Lincolnesque features.

But in military parlance, resonating all the way from Gettysburg, the phrase “full measure” means more than getting out the vote in the next primary state. It means, soberingly, giving one’s life so others might live in freedom. It means knowing a flagpole is more than an inconvenience, more than an indifferent metaphor.

KENNETH E. GRUBBS JR.

Director of the National Journalism Center

Editor of TheReporter.us.

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