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Whose flag shall we fly?

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David Phillips is a judge in Travis County, Texas, who has taken to wearing an American flag pin. So what is newsworthy about that? You’d expect a Texas judge to wear a flag pin ... perhaps with electric-chair cuff links for balance.

But get this: Phillips, whom I have known and admired for many years, is a liberal Democrat who can’t stand George Bush or most of his policies. And much like women taking back the night, he thinks we should stop the far right from hijacking our flag, which is supposed to stand for democracy, equality and freedom.

“I am not going to let the right-wing appropriate our national symbols the way they did in the ’70s and ’80s,” he wrote me before heading off for his local Fourth of July parade. That’s the most patriotic thing I’ve heard all year.

Patriotism doesn’t have to be the last refuge of scoundrels, nor something hack politicians drag out of the closet on Memorial Day and July Fourth. Incidentally, the judge is a middle-aged, middle-class guy, originally from Oklahoma, with his original wife and two college-age daughters. And by my definition he is as patriotic as we come. Not only does he spend his days trying to dispense justice for less money than any corporate lawyer could make, he insists on honoring the values that inspired the colors in his flag pin.

That’s especially noteworthy ... when you consider that his ancestors were also Native American.

Too often, those on the left sigh or smirk at the red, white and blue. Granted, that flag hasn’t always been planted in the right places. But think about this: How many of the flag-waving, George Bush-is-always-right set would support the American Revolution were it to start now?

Yes, I know the theory that it was merely an economic move of convenience for that era’s ruling class. Yet I doubt that most of today’s blustering, give-Saddam-hell patriots would sign on to the Declaration of Independence; the “all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights” stuff. No, most of the people who support King George II now more than likely would have backed King George III then.

Thinking for yourself seldom gets you in with the in crowd. But in our country, fighting to keep an independent mind is about the most patriotic thing you can do.

Rallying round the candidates: You may not be thinking about the next election, but Michigan voters have less than seven months before they get their one shot at picking a Democratic presidential nominee. Many are already facing a familiar agony. Do they fight for the candidate whose views they adore — or do they swallow hard, hold noses, and pick the candidate most likely to give Dubya a race?

Thus far, the realists seem to be grouping around U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, while the idealists are mostly flocking to Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, with a few going to Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. Some, though not all, labor types lean to Dick Gephardt, while conservatives (a distinct minority) are splitting between John Edwards and Joe Lieberman.

This pattern has been taking shape for months. What’s new is a sudden fund-raising surge for Dean, a 54-year-old country doctor, once seen as a minor candidate whose small chances evaporated when the war turned out to be a “success.”

But he seems to be gaining momentum, and raised more money this quarter than any of the other, better-known contenders. There seems little question that he is the Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern of this campaign, the only candidate who is drawing new voters and appealing to the young. Nor is it hard to see why.

“The way to beat George Bush is not to vote for half his stuff and say, ‘Well, I voted for the president half the time.’ The way to beat George Bush is to offer a different vision for the country, and that’s what I am trying to do,” Dean tells ecstatic audiences.

Though they won’t say so publicly, more and more Democrats are whispering that it doesn’t look like there is much chance next year anyway ... so why not select a nominee for once who stands for something, who represents, as Dean likes to say, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”?

But I am not yet convinced. What bothers me most about Dean is that he seems to radiate an air of moral superiority, as if he is purer than all the rest. Jimmy Carter had this in lesser degree, and it helped to make him a failure as president.

And there is another factor that both the pragmatists and idealists seem to be ignoring. Fact is, the presidency is an awesome job that takes considerable management experience, political skill, and knowledge of the ways of Washington. Democrats have elected only two presidents since 1964, both of whom were governors of Southern states without a whit of experience with Congress.

That hurt both gravely. Carter was a near-total failure, thanks in part to his pack of arrogant young aides, one of whom was called “Hannibal Jerkin” by contemptuous congressmen. Clinton was better — but blew health care by overreaching before what he knew what he was doing or understood how Congress works.

Howard Dean, pretty much right on the issues, has yet to show that he has any idea how to work with Washington or even recognizes that this is a potential problem. That doesn’t mean he is hopeless; he was a fairly able chief executive of Vermont. But his state has less than half the population of Oakland County.

Stay tuned; there will be much more on all this as the months roll by. By the way, as usual, I reserve the right to change my mind. Frequently.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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