Published on
the Boston Globe

Obama's Patriotism

Joan Vennochi

Barack Obama believes his patriotism can't be challenged. Maybe he should talk to Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

"I am absolutely confident that during the general election that when I'm in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism, they are going to be questioning how can you make people's lives a little better," declared Obama during last week's contentious debate with Hillary Clinton.

Obama wants the race for the White House to be about hope. It probably won't be.

In 1988, Dukakis said the campaign was about "competence, not ideology." His opponent, George H.W. Bush, made it all about ideology. The GOP turned Dukakis into a civil liberties-loving elitist who let convicted felons free to strike again.

The attack on Dukakis also zeroed in on his veto of a bill requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis vetoed the legislation after an advisory opinion from the state supreme court called it unconstitutional. The facts didn't matter. The Massachusetts governor was pounded on the Pledge. At one point during the campaign, a Republican senator also falsely claimed that Kitty Dukakis had burned an American flag during an antiwar demonstration in the 1960s.

In 2000, the GOP opposition mocked Democrat Al Gore's five-month tour of duty in Vietnam as a military journalist. They suggested he enlisted only because his father was a senator from the south and belittled him as a desk jockey. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent, George W. Bush never fully answered questions about how he got a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard, or whether he fulfilled the requirements of his National Guard service.

In 2004, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, came under attack from fellow veterans who questioned the legitimacy of his combat medals and denounced his past antiwar activities. The smear campaign run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group funded by the biggest Republican donor in Texas, played a major role in another Democrat's loss to another Bush. The group formed in March 2004, after it was clear Kerry would be the Democratic nominee. In an attack ad that began running on Aug. 5, 13 veterans stated that Kerry is "not being honest" and "is lying about his record."


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Kerry didn't respond for two weeks, a delay he blames for his defeat. Democrats now call such attacks "swift boating." If Kerry could fall victim to it, so could Obama. The ability to undermine a campaign in that way has nothing to do with logic, fact, or confidence. It would be a shame if the 2008 campaign comes down to Obama's choice to forgo wearing an American flag pin on his lapel - but it could.

It might be more difficult for John McCain, the Republican nominee, to allow it. In 2004, McCain, a Vietnam war hero who was tortured during five years as a POW, denounced the smear campaign against Kerry as "dishonest and dishonorable." But Obama should be ready to face the political reality that accompanies some controversial choices.

They include his decision to stay in a church whose pastor blamed America for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and his association, however tenuous, with a Vietnam-era radical named William Ayers.

On the same night the Democrats were debating in Philadelphia, Vice President Dick Cheney was addressing the Radio & Television Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, D.C. It was a funny performance, and included a reference to Obama and the "riveting sermons" he sat through. "If he gets elected, you're not going to want to miss those Washington prayer breakfasts," joshed the vice president.

History indicates the GOP approach will be less humorous in the fall. In 1992, Bill Clinton was outed as a draft-dodger, but he still beat the first President Bush, a decorated World War II fighter pilot. Clinton was helped by an economic downturn and a president's failure to keep his word when he pledged "no new taxes."

That part of history might also repeat itself in 2008. But no Democrat should ever forget the chapter that embraces a zealous assault on their patriotism.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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