Obama Says He Doesn't Question Others' Patriotism
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In a week filled with Fourth of July symbolism, the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders are talking about what it means to be an American. Barack Obama was in Missouri, a key swing state, to speak about patriotism and also to declare his independence from the comments of one of his supporters who questioned the military service of John McCain.
NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH: The location says it all - Independence, Missouri - and there was Senator Barack Obama strolling along the sidewalk, calling out to people on their porches.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presumptive Presidential Nominee): Oh, hold on a second. I was coming to you.
SMITH: Blue skies, flags, the home of former President Harry S. Truman - you could not paint a more patriotic tableau.
Sen. OBAMA: It's a place where I think there's not a lot of pretense of fuss or trying to use patriotism in ways that divide us. So, I thought it was an appropriate site.
SMITH: If last week's visit to Unity, New Hampshire was all about Democratic unity, then Obama's visit to Independence was to distance himself from the rumors swirling on the Internet that somehow he wasn't loyal to America. And so, as he did on the race issue back in March, Obama tackled it head-on.
Sen. OBAMA: The question of who is or is not a patriot all too often poisons our political debates in ways that divide us rather than bring us together.
SMITH: It was a serious, almost lecture-like, speech to a about a thousand people at the Truman Memorial building in town. He stood in front of four American flags and wore a fifth one in his lapel. It was Obama's earlier refusal to wear such a flag pin that started much of the whispering campaign in the first place.
Yet Obama said his love of country has always been a given. Growing up, he says, he had a gut instinct that America was the greatest country on earth.
Sen. OBAMA: For a young man like me, of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea - that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will - that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans.
(Soundbite of applause)
SMITH: Obama told the story of his grandfather handing him his dog tags and how his mother would recite the Declaration of Independence to him as a boy. The history lesson went back further, as Obama talked about even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were accused of not being patriotic enough. Although Obama didn't mention it explicitly, the Democrats in the room knew well the more recent lesson: how the Republicans have successfully used patriotism and love of country to their advantage.
Sen. OBAMA: When we argue about patriotism we're arguing about who we are as a country, and more importantly who we should be. But surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism.
(Soundbite of applause)
SMITH: It was the kind of speech that was designed to start a larger conversation - that the message was undermined by distracting controversy about whether Obama's campaign was trying to dismiss the military service of John McCain. On Sunday, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," General Wesley Clark, an Obama surrogate, made a reference to McCain's days as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Clark said that being shot down over enemy territory doesn't qualify you to be commander-in-chief. Yesterday McCain responded.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presumptive Presidential Nominee): I am proud of my record of service and I have plenty of friends and leaders who will attest to that. But the important thing is, if that's the kind of campaign that Senator Obama and his surrogates and his supporters want to gauge, I understand that, but it doesn't reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny.
SMITH: The Obama campaign condemned Clark's statement and Obama went out of his way in his patriotism speech to praise McCain's sacrifice for his country.
Sen. OBAMA: No one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters of both sides.
SMITH: After the speech, Obama went outside to shake hands and found Stephanie Aloush(ph) and her daughter, Taylor, in tears.
Sen. OBAMA: Are you guys okay?
Ms. STEPHANIE ALOUSH (Obama Supporter): Yeah, we were so excited.
Ms. TAYLOR ALOUSH (Obama Supporter): We loved your speech.
SMITH: Aloush says she's been waiting to hear somebody talk about patriotism the way Obama had.
Ms. S. ALOUSH: It's what's in your heart. It's not what someone tells you patriotism is. It's what you feel, it's what you're born with, it's what makes you want to be here and participate in the community and in the country.
SMITH: The campaign says Obama will be talking about those kind of American values all week long. Today the senator will be discussing faith at a church in Ohio.
Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.