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Ask Not What We Want to Hear

Les Payne

Let 'em eat flags! This slap at voters otherwise concerned about their next mortgage payment comes, not from Marie Antoinette, but appears to be the message from the elitist managers at ABC News.

Moderator Charles Gibson admonished Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic primary debate last week that should he insist on appearing in public sans flag pin it could be a "major vulnerability if you're a candidate in November."

Genuine "major vulnerabilities" have seldom been disposed of quite so easily. Politics, however, may have arrived at such a point where, alas, the flag pin is the last resort of the scoundrel.

"Look, I revere the American flag," Obama explained during the debate. "I would not be running for president if I did not revere the country."

Instead of wearing the flag pin, however, the senator said he preferred showing his patriotism by acts that help solve real political problems.

"What I've tried to do is to show my patriotism," he said, "by how I treat veterans when I'm working in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; by making sure that I'm speaking forcefully about how we need to bring this war in Iraq to a close because I think it is not serving our national security well; and it's not serving our military families and our troops well; talking about how we need to restore a sense of economic fairness to this country, because that's what this country has always been about ... distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander-in-chief."

Co-host George Stephanopoulos chimed in, "If you get the nomination, you'll have to beat back these distractions." Already this key 21st debate, the last one scheduled before the Democrats name their nominee, was chest-deep in the trivia swamp.

The mud frogs of the candidates, which had been croaking over the past weeks, were forced to dance obscenely for the first 55 minutes by the ABC "newsmen," so-called.

George Stephanopoulos, of course, is not a journalist. Charles Gibson is, but he's not much of a moderator. This odd couple plowed deep furrows on what's left of the respectability of TV debates. Follow-up critiques centered not so much on the two candidates keying on the Pennsylvania primary, but on the moderators teetering on trivia.

Boy George may not be a bad person, but he flies under a false flag. Imprinted as a political operative, Stephanopoulos earned demerits as much for his trivia pursuit the other night as for his career conflicts. Having served as Senior Advisor on Policy and Strategy in the Clinton White House, he might have been moved by earnestness either to recuse himself from the debate or to explain his Clinton problem.

Instead, he carried the night-soil for the wife of his former boss, the 42nd U.S. President, who afforded Stephanopoulos the White House gig that launched him.

Were this not bad enough, Stephanopoulos took one of his key questions, the one about the former Weather Underground activist, as reportedly dictated to him by twisted, talk-show host Sean Hannity. Like so many high-profile conservatives, Hannity's patriotism is as shallow as the prick of a flag pin and just as misleading.

Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, likely has trunks full for such flag pins, all made in China.

Yet few Americans have achieved his dubious record of patriotism. As a young man, he begged for and received a record 5 military draft deferments from his patriotic obligation.

As a senior, Cheney first helped initiate the Iraq invasion; then his former company, Halliburton, proceeded to plunder billions in no-bid U.S. contracts.

Further, the loyal U.S. soldiers, who, unlike the draft-age Cheney, answered their country's call to arms in Iraq, have been woefully mistreated upon their return by the regime of President George W. Bush and Cheney.

Compulsive flag-pin wearing does not make a citizen a patriot.

Les Payne is a columnist for Newsday.

© 2008 Newsday

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