Wesley Clark sets out to re-capture the flag 

Candidate visited DePauw last month

Candidate visited DePauw last month
Gen. Wesley Clark, who almost instantaneously became the Democratic frontrunner upon entering the race for president a few weeks ago, has offered few policy proposals. But Clark surged ahead in polls, apparently because the retired Army officer and former NATO supreme allied commander is a certifiable patriot. In what appears much like a pre-election game of capture the flag, some Democrats are searching for a candidate who not only can rally a plurality behind the Democratic platform, but who can also forestall any question of the left’s love of country.
On a recent Indiana stopover, the rowdiest ovation Clark received was for his attacks on the GOP’s claim to a monopoly on patriotism. “I think we’ve got to have a new kind of patriotism in this country, a new spirit of patriotism, a new American patriotism,” Clark declared in a speech last month at DePauw University in Greencastle. “And,” the general added, “it’s a new kind of patriotism that understands that no administration has the right to suggest … whether it’s in peace or war, that disagreement in a democracy is somehow unpatriotic.” The cheers and applause were explosive. The post Sept. 11 chilling of America’s political climate began when Ari Fleischer, then-White House press secretary, warned people to “watch what they say.” Attorney General John Ashcroft said that people complaining about the Department of Justice having insufficient respect for civil liberties would “scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies.” Democrat congressional leaders complain that debate has even withered on Capitol Hill. “Whenever we talk about the tax cuts, or the inability to fund Social Security and Medicare, we’re reminded that we have a defense obligation and obligations to the troops,” says Rep. Charles Rangel, the Democrat congressman from New York. “No one can stand next to a person who just got out of a combat flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier and compete. You just can’t do it. You really need Americans to believe that criticizing any president, Republican or Democrat, is not unpatriotic, and this is especially so for those of us in the House that vote in a partisan way.” On the issue of the Iraq war, most Democrats saw it the better part of valor to shut up, thus voluntarily muzzling any debate, says Todd Gitlin, a prominent 1960s leftist who teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University. In today’s debate, Gitlin, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, hears echoes from 30 years ago when the unfolding Vietnam war began to polarize the nation. “Many in Congress, many in the political establishment, many newspaper editors believed that it was unpatriotic to cast aspersions on the Johnson policy,” he says. “Even as the war became less and less popular, it remained the case that many of the people who thought the war was a bad idea thought it was illegitimate to say so, or at least to say so very conspicuously.” Today’s protesters could avoid such political alienation, Gitlin says. “Take the flag back — exactly as Clark says. Why should somebody who thinks that it’s reasonable to avoid taxes or to move your corporation to the Cayman Islands or Bermuda get to parade as a patriot? Why should those, who supported the Vietnam war but avoided military service, get to claim the mantel of patriotism? It’s an outrage. Why should those who leak the names of CIA agents be patriots?” Both Gitlin and Rangel say that as Bush’s policies unravel, the ground will become more fertile for challenges to Bush’s grasp on an exclusive claim to patriotism, and the country’s best interests. “He’s not been tested very long, so it’s a bit of a premature judgment,” Gitlin said of Clark’s chances as a presidential candidate. “But he certainly has staked a claim to being a plausible standard bearer. And other things being equal, yeah, he’s in a strong position to repossess the flag, or at least insist that it be shared.”

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