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Saturday, Apr 21 2012 10:03 PM

Who's more patriotic? We must know

By The Bakersfield Californian

Could Luis Alejo be any less qualified to serve in the California Assembly? He has been observed in a distracted state during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Clearly he does not love his country. Perhaps his allegiance is somewhere else -- given over to some insidious one-world government plot, for example.

The imagination runs wild at the possible implications of Alejo's alleged indifference to Old Glory -- alleged, it turns out, by none other than Bakersfield firecracker Shannon Grove. In just 18 months, the first-term Republican Assemblywoman has distinguished herself as an enthusiastic combatant in state government's ideological wars. And if that means she must scan the Assembly floor for Pledge heretics, real or potential, she'll do so with gusto.

Grove made the accusation about Alejo, a Watsonville Democrat, at a Monterey County fundraiser for his Republican opponent, Rob Bernosky of Hollister, on April 5. Alejo, outraged by the accusation, assured the world that he does in fact recite the Pledge regularly and was considering filing an Assembly ethics charge against Grove. Grove fired back, saying Alejo was also known to have taken cuts in the tetherball line.

We really shouldn't be surprised by this sort of nonsense. Politicians have been waging the I'm-more-American-than-you (and its cousin, the I'm-more-Christian-than-you) battle against rivals for years -- for centuries, even. Thomas Jefferson was portrayed by opponents as too French because he had served as the U.S. ambassador to France -- and, even more suspiciously, had cultivated a considerable taste for French wine. We might have predicted the manufactured outrage when detractors started snarking about Barack Obama's flag lapel pin, or possible lack thereof, because nothing speaks to one's understanding of and appreciation for the U.S. Constitution like a dime-sized piece of lapel jewelry.

As a result, it seems we rarely anymore see a politician in any sort of public setting without a lapel pin snapped firmly in place. It's as if Sen. Joseph McCarthy were back, panning the stage with a digital camcorder for evidence of latent Communist sympathies, revealed in candidates' failure to punch a tiny hole in a perfectly good blazer or slap his right palm against his rib cage at the first sign of a Marine Corps color guard.

Remember when politicians argued about policy? OK, me neither.

If it seems like Republicans point out flag etiquette issues, real or contrived, among Democrats much more often than the other way around, maybe there's a reason for that. Intentionally or not, Republicans have made the U.S. flag their own. A Cornell University study from July 2011 suggests that's case, anyway.

Just before the 2008 presidential election, researchers recruited voters to participate in an online political survey. Half of the survey-takers' computer screens also showed an image of the American flag; the other half's didn't. The researchers called participants right after the election and asked how they voted. Those who had been briefly exposed to the flag while taking the survey were significantly more likely to have voted for John McCain than Obama.

Alejo has no partisan aversion to the flag, he maintains. He told The Monterey Herald that Grove's comments were "a complete fabrication or a figment of her imagination." His spokeswoman noted that Alejo, the son of a military veteran, led the Assembly in the Pledge on Feb. 3, 2011.

It's clear from Alejo's response that laughing off such accusations just won't fly. We're-more-patriotic-than-you-are taunting is serious business in U.S. politics. Roll your eyes at your own career peril.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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