I remember the exact moment I realized that I was an American patriot. It was during the closing statement Sen. Daniel Inouye gave during 1987's congressonal Iran-Contra hearings.
For the record, the Iran-Contra affair took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. It started as a plan hatched by the National Security Agency to sell arms to "moderate" Iranians, who would in turn use their infuence to get Hezbollah to release six American hostges. Then somehow, Lt. Col. Oliver North, a military attaché to the NSA, schemed to use profits from the arms sale to fund anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua after Congress refused to fund the effort.
Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii who lost an arm while taking on a German machine gun nest in World War II, took North to task as I watched on TV. I cried when I heard his words. Inouye said, "Vigilance abroad does not require us to abandon our ideals or the rule of law at home. On the contrary, without our principles and without our ideals, we have little that is special or worthy to defend. ... [A] great nation betrayed the principles which have made it great, and thereby became hostage to hostage-takers."
Inouye said he was offended by the "vision of government" seen by Col. North and others: "That of a secret government, accountable to not a single elected official, including apparently the president himself; a shadowy government with its own air force, its own navy, its own fund-raising mechanism and the ability to pursue its own ideas of the national interest, free from all checks and balances and free from the law itself."
I realized that to believe in America was to believe in the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not the right-wing conservatives who had co-opted flag-waving self-righteousness to call their corrupt vision patriotic. That was when I found pride in what America really stands for and felt that I was a part of it. Before that, I had always felt this disassociation with many of the things that were depicted as patriotic. I was a black kid during the 1960s, when the left was fighting the right over civil rights and the war in Vietnam; I didn't feel like I was really a part of all this. But that changed on an August day in 1987 when I realized that I indeed believed in the ideals around which this country was created, and that it was those who would deny me who were outside the truth of American democracy.
Why do I bring that up now? Because in the next few weeks we are going to hear a lot of character attacks on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. John McCain's campaign plans to paint him as un-American and unpatriotic. It ramped up this past weekend when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attacked Obama for "palling around with terrorists." That charge is based on a tenuous connection with Bill Ayers, a co-founder of the radical Weather Underground in the 1960s (when Obama was a child in a faraway place). Between 1999 and 2002, Obama and Ayers were on the board of directors of an anti-poverty group. Ayers hosted a gathering over coffee for Obama's first state Senate race and donated $200 to his 2001 re-election campaign. They didn't actually pal around. Palin also brought up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and this won't be the last time she does that.
I don't know where it will come from, but we will also hear again that Obama is a Muslim. And someone is going to trot out that sound bite of Michelle Obama saying something about her husband's presidential campaign marking the first time she's been "really proud" to be an American. The undercurrent of all this — coupled with the Republican ticket making endless constrasts between Obama and the regular folks and hard-working folk, etc., etc. that they claim to represent — will be the idea that Obama is black and all those black people are unpatriotic.
The truth is that I felt a sense of camaraderie with Michelle Obama when she remarked how she became "really proud" to be an American. Maybe when you have experienced the short end of the stick with Jim Crow and segregation, when your parents tell you that you have to work three times as hard as a white guy to make it, you grow up feeling disenfranchised. Maybe when you finally get it that this country belongs to you, it's sweeter than when you can just take it for granted. Some of us get it late. The most wrongheaded never get it at all.
For instance, last month, when a video of professional basketball player Josh Howard disrespecting the national anthem surfaced his response was, "I don't celebrate this shit. I'm black."
Maybe Howard will get it someday. Maybe he'll realize that he is part of America and being black has nothing to do with being disrespectful, unpatriotic or not participating in the political system. That's why voting is so important. When you vote, you claim your patriotism in the most fundamental way.
Every attempt to paint Obama as unpatriotic is an attempt to paint blacks in general as unpatriotic. And I'll tell you that I'm one African-American who doesn't buy that claim. A Japanese-American named Inouye taught me the lesson.
Top 10 weird twists: As the campaign goes down to the wire all kinds of weird stuff could happen as the candidates jostle to get the upper hand.
10) Obama plays the race card; DNA testing reveals John McCain's African ancestry.
9) McCain drops Palin from the ticket and tries to replace her with actress Tina Fey. When Fey refuses, he runs without a vice president.
8) A former Vietnamese prison camp guard appears in a campaign commercial, and attests to McCain's character, saying, "He's one tough officer."
7) Hillary Clinton joins Ralph Nader's independent ticket, but the plan falls apart when Nader insults her corporate friends at a barbecue fundraiser.
6) The Rev. Al Sharpton denounces Obama as a "brother without a cause." No media show up at Sharpton's press conference.
5) The candidates' wives face off in a World Wrestling Federation event. A crazed Cindy McCain beats down Michelle Obama, at least until the Obama daughters jump into to the ring to save their mother.
4) Bush, enthralled by the momentary attention paid to him by the press during the Wall Street bailout negotiations, uses the economic crisis as an excuse to cancel the election, saying, "We can't afford an election until this debt has been eliminated."
3) McCain admits that he couldn't look at Obama in the first debate because he fell asleep in his chair and woke up with a crick in his neck.
2) The entire Kenyan village where Obama's father was born relocates to Arizona to campaign for him.
1) Palin's coast-to-coast snowmobile tour of every trailer park in America — to meet the real people — is stopped when the early winter she's accustomed to in Alaska doesn't materialize in the lower 48.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]