Forward! To The 1870s!


A lot’s been made in the last few days about the new Obama campaign “flag,” which replaces the 50 stars with the Obama campaign symbol.  (After all, who need 50 stars when you can get by with The One?)  As a counterpoint, some on the left have taken to posting Lincoln campaign flags, and a few of my friends on the left haven’t been above calling conservatives names over their outrage.  It turns out it wasn’t just Lincoln who did this – it was a fairly common, almost standard campaign motif from about 1840 to William McKinley.  I’ve collected a slideshow (although those of you reading this in email will need to go to the site to see it):

Then, starting in the very late 1800s, around about the same time that we started to take our place on the world stage, our attitude about the flag started to change as well.  In 1898, the poem, “Hats Off!” was published.  It was still current as late as the 1960s, when it was being republished in a book I read as a kid.  The Pledge of Allegiance was published in 1892, as well.  (Ironically, Francis Bellamy was  a Christian socialist, but nowadays it’s the “right-wingers” who open meetings with it.  It was written in the days when American socialism was more nationalist, and less Internationale, I suppose.  Good thing they dropped the salute, though.)  And in 1924, the Code of Conduct for the Flag was finally enacted, about a generation after the flag’s started to become a more venerated symbol.  By that time, of course, putting your picture on the flag had long gone out of fashion.

Does this mean that the Obama campaign flag is much ado about nothing?  I don’t think so.  I was never outraged by the appropriation of the flag, but I did consider it to be just another example of the creepy cult of personality that Obama seems way too comfortable with, and which is completely inappropriate for a sitting president of a democratic republic.  Harsanyi missed this year’s DNC logo, a stylized Obama campaign “O.”  I looked back at convention logos of both parties from 1980 onward, and didn’t see anything remotely like that for either party.  He also didn’t mention the other weird stuff, like making an “O” with your hands in 2008, and the Obama Campaign Wedding Registry.

We’ve lionized presidents before, but usually after they’ve left office.  Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan come to mind.  Three of them died in office, three led us through decisive moments in major struggles.  (JFK’s persists to this day.  I was looking at a poster of presidential portraits in DAT this morning, and while almost all were the official presidential portrait, Kennedy’s was of his standing with his hand on his desk, head bowed, in a golden haze, which struck me as a little over-the-top.  Fifty years on, that sort of thing isn’t doing anything to encourage serious appraisals of his time in office, is it?)  But I can’t remember anything like this for a living President, and Obama’s the eighth one I’ve been conscious of.

Certainly the way that Obama did this is different from what came before.  In some ways, the redesign does more violence to the flag than the portraits did.  The Obama “O” is a paler shade of blue, cyan really.  And the previous presidents and campaigns at least kept the stars there, rather than replacing them entirely.  But I’m sure that if he had put his portrait, or a stylized, dark blue monochrome of the Sheperd Fairey poster there, and kept the stars, it would still have been weird.  It’s not just about the design elements.

My friend State Senator Shawn Mitchell put his finger on it when he said that campaign symbols, indeed any political symbols, are created in a particular time and a particular environment.  In the 1870s, people were used to seeing this sort of thing.  Now they’re not.

The claim that this is just reviving an old tradition of flag redesign doesn’t ring true, not in today’s context.   A lot’s changed since the late 19th Century, and how we think about the flag is only part of it.  Maybe it was more acceptable when the Republic was younger.  Maybe there was a recognition that the presidency was itself, in some way, a national symbol, and that in the days before the federal government has usurped so much of the states’ powers, there was less danger in any one individual who occupied the office.

So how about a deal.  We’ll stop complaining about Obama “desecrating” the flag, if they’ll pare back the Federal Government to the scope it had in 1876.

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