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During the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, a question from a voter rekindled an unlikely campaign issue: why Sen. Barack Obama doesn't wear a flag lapel pin.
Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos rolled video of a voter from Latrobe, Pa.: "Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't."
Obama gave a lengthy answer first defended his patriotrism -- "I revere the American flag, and I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country" -- before repeating remarks that it's more important to act patriotically than to where a pin.
"What I've tried to do is to show my patriotism 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," said Obama.
He added, "I wore one yesterday when a veteran handed it to me, who himself was disabled and works on behalf of disabled veterans. I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins."
This is not the first time Obama has been questioned about lapel pins. It appears the issue first came up in October 2007 when a reporter with KCRG-TV, an ABC affiliate in Iowa, asked him, "You don't have the American flag pin on. Is that a fashion statement?"
Obama said: "You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
So it is true that Obama said he won't wear the flag pin, and his statement at the debate was not accurate. We found his debate statement to be False.
But Obama wasn't the only candidate not wearing a flag pin during the fall campaign. News reports from that time indicate that neither Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, nor John McCain were wearing flag pins on a daily basis either. The only candidate mentioned in news reports as regularly wearing a flag pin was Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.
Flag pins proliferated in the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a way of showing patriotism. As years have gone by, however, flag pin shave become less prevalent. By 2005, even Republican politicians weren't wearing them on a regular basis -- Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wasn't wearing a flag pin on Flag Day, according to a New York Times story. So when Obama was asked about not wearing in 2007, he was not outside the norm.
But Obama's October remarks on the pin resonated with the conservative media. The Drudge Report's headline read "Obama Won't Wear American Flag Pin Any More." Fox News Network commentator Sean Hannity opined, "You Democrats are so fixated on hating Bush, and you're so fixated on undermining the war, that you even now are using the American flag as a statement." The Chicago Sun-Times editorial page scolded Obama directly – "Oh for Pete's sake, Sen. Obama, pin the darn American flag to your chest and tell people you're as patriotic as anyone" – before concluding "Obama has worked hard to stake out a centrist position, but his polarizing comments make him sound like a hardened leftist."
Others thought the controversy was ridiculous.
"Another in a series of bullshit non-stories that have zero effect on the troops, the war or anything in the real world -- or, as Fox calls it, 'Breaking News,'" wrote comedian Bill Maher wrote in the online magazine Salon.
"From the hue and cry on the right, you'd have thought Obama had flushed a Bible down the toilet," wrote syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker. "Most honest brokers know exactly what he meant, and he's not wrong. Overused symbols lose their meaning."
Since the ABC debate, criticism over the flag pin issue has mounted again, though this time much of it is aimed at Stephanopoulos and Gibson for spending too much time during the debate on the candidate's gaffes. The Washington Post media critic Tom Shales wrote that the moderators "turned in shoddy, despicable performances." The ABC Web site was flooded with more than 19,000 comments, most of them negative. The left-leaning group MoveOn.org started a petition demanding that the media "focus on issues that affect people's daily lives."
ABC News, Obama Dropped Flag Pin in War Statement , Oct. 4, 2007. (Includes video.)
KCRG-TV, Obama Won't Wear American Flag Pin , Oct. 4, 2007.
MSNBC, "Obama's Pin Flap," Oct. 5, 2007.
New York Daily News, "Won't stick it to Bam. Many pols won't wear flag pins - or criticize Barack," Oct. 6, 2007.
The Associated Press, "Obama stops wearing flag pin," October 4, 2007.
The New York Times, O'er the Lapels of the Free, Fewer Star-Spangled Pins , July 3, 2005.
The Drudge Report, Obama won't wear American flag pin any more , Oct. 4, 2007.
Fox News Network, "Hannity & Colmes," Oct. 5, 2007.
The Chicago Sun-Times, "Obama stuck in no-pin zone; He should put Stars and Stripes back on his lapel," Oct. 5, 2007.
Salon.com, Flag pins are for idiots , by Bill Maher, Oct. 15, 2007.
RealClearPolitics.com, Wearing virtue on our lapels , by Kathleen Parker, Oct. 10, 2007.
ABC News, Philly Fight Night: Dems Spar Over Electability , April 17, 2008.
The Washington Post, In Pa. Debate, The Clear Loser Is ABC , by Tom Shales, April 17, 2008.
The Associated Press, Gibson, Stephanopoulos criticized for work on debate , April 17, 2008