Responding to 'Morning Joe' Discussion of Obama Hand-on-Heart Controversy

My October 20th item, "Obama: No Hand on Heart for National Anthem," focused on a "Time" photo of Barack Obama in Iowa in September at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry. In contrast with the other candidates, Obama was shown not placing his hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem. A reproduction of the photo is seen here, as displayed on today's "Morning Joe."

Video from November 5 "Morning Joe" (2:02): Real (1.50 MB) and Windows (1.26 MB), plus MP3 audio (952 kB).

I believe I may have been the first person in the blogosphere to discuss the story. Fox News subsequently made reference to the matter on a couple shows, but to my knowledge no other major news shows picked it up. Yet the story took on a life of its own. The item here continued to attract thousands of new readers every day [over 107,000 hits at last count], dozens of other sites picked it up, and emails began circulating that included the photo. I've received far more email about it than for any other item I've posted. Although some people have written to criticize the item, the great majority of the messages are critical of Sen. Obama. This story has clearly touched a nerve with many Americans.

During today's "Morning Joe," the panel engaged in an extended discussion of the controversy. The consensus among Joe Scarborough, Wilie Geist and Mika Brzezinski was that the story is unfair, misleading and even a "lie." Though my item was not directly cited, given my involvement with the story I'd like to offer my perspective.

I stand by my story. I'll note that when I first posted the item, and based on the statement from the reader who sent me the photo, I identified the photo as having been taken during the pledge of allegiance rather than the national anthem. However, very shortly thereafter, after having reviewed the original photo, I corrected the record and indicated that it was taken during the anthem.

As you'll see from the transcript below of the "Morning Joe" segment, the MJ panelists and the Obama campaign have seized on the fact that it was the anthem and not the pledge to excuse Obama's failure to put his hand over his heart. That is a distinction without a difference: the tradition is to place the hand over the heart for the anthem as well as for the pledge.

Indeed, the very first words of my item were the text of United States Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Sec. 171, which states that "during rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart."

Obviously the other candidates were aware of that tradition. While Hillary and Bill Richardson are the only other candidates in the photo of the event, the video of the anthem-playing reveals that Harkin, John Edwards, and a person appearing to be Joe Biden, are also on the platform, and all have hand on heart.

As to Willie's characterization that "the story [out on the internet] is that he's standing in protest," that Obama "hates America" and that he's going to "side with terrorists": obviously I don't know everything others may have said. It's entirely possible that some people have made such allegations. I certainly never said or suggested such a thing, nor do I believe it. My editorializing consisted of these statements in my original item:

  • Turns out that not wearing a flag lapel pin isn't the only way Barack Obama chooses to show he's a different kind of Democrat.
  • Does he perhaps believe that, like wearing the flag pin, the hand on the heart isn't "true patriotism"?
  • Does Obama have some third act or omission planned to demonstrate that he's not falling for those corny, old-fashioned displays of patriotism?

Again, I stand by all that. As graphically shown in the video, Obama is a different kind of Democrat when it comes to putting the hand on the heart during the anthem. According to no less an authority than Media Matters, an Obama representative told "Inside Edition" that "sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't" put his hand on his heart during the anthem. So the photo doesn't depict an unusual event, but is indicative of Obama's casual attitude toward the tradition.

As to the flag pin: I have no problem with a candidate choosing not to wear one. But I found it jarring that Obama, asked about it, went out of his way to state "I won't wear that pin on my chest" because it was "a substitute for I think true patriotism."

In conclusion:

As a conservative I of course have policy differences with Barack Obama. But I bear him no ill will. Since the story broke, I've written subsequently about him without referrring to the flap, including this story in which I concurred that John Edwards' attacks on Hillary would redound to Obama's benefit.

I don't question Barack Obama's patriotism, though it is obvious that he's not enthralled with certain traditional expressions of it that many Americans appreciate.

I think it was fair to put the story out, and to let Americans judge for themselves.

UPDATE | 7:10 PM: Reader Dan The Man 2 made a comment so important I wanted to mention it here. He wrote that Obama doesn't get the fact that he's running for "figurehead" of the United States. Another way of putting it is that under our constitutional system, and unlike the situation in many countries, the president is both the head of government and the head of state.

For a president not to hold his hand over his heart during the anthem would be tantamount to the Queen of England not observing a corresponding British tradition. Obama needs to understand that he is auditioning to be head of state. He needs to conduct himself as such, or inform the American people that if elected, he would not intend to rigorously observe all the traditions normally associated with the position.

Here'e the transcript of the "Morning Joe" panel discussion.

WILLIE GEIST: We've got the latest Obama-isn't-patriotic ridiculous story. So the claim was that he refused to put his hand over his heart -- excuse me -- that he refused to recite the pledge of allegiance at an event in Iowa.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Wouldn't put his hand over his heart.

GEIST: Wouldn't put his hand over the heart.

SCARBOROUGH: They got the pictures, everybody is sending it around. My mother has sent me this e-mail 47 times.

GEIST: So the story is that he's standing in protest, refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, refusing to put the hand over the heart. The real story is they're playing the national anthem and he doesn't have his hand over his heart. Let's listen to Obama's reaction to that.

Cut to video clip of Obama.

BARACK OBAMA: That e-mail has been completely misidentified. This was the "Star Spangled Banner". There was not the pledge of allegiance. Any time that you pledge allegiance, you put your hand over your heart, and I always have, and I always will. And so if anybody receives that e-mail, I just want everybody to know it's simply not true. This is similar to the e-mails that have been floating around that says I am, you know -- I'm a Muslim plant who is planning to take over America. This would surprise my pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. There's only so much you can do around this kind of misinformation.

SCARBOROUGH: You know, those e-mails are sent around all the time.

OBAMA: So what's the implication, then? That Barack Obama hates America? If it comes down to America and the terrorists he's going to side with the terrorists? It's such a stupid point.

SCARBOROUGH: And he won't pledge. But if you get this e-mail and you send it around to all these people, enough people are going look at it and think, gosh, there is something wrong. I remember Mika, yesterday, I asked you what's the deal with this, why is he not pledging? And asked you if we could shoot an email to the campaign.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: I did speak to the campaign, and they're like, oh lord, "we can shoot you pictures of him with his hand on his heart, but that's not the story and let us know if you want us to deal with it."

SCARBOROUGH: The problem is voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire can't e-mail the campaign and get an answer this quickly back. So there are these lies that are circulated around and you don't need 50%, and I've always found this in campaign smears. You don't need 50% of the people to believe it, you don't need 50% of the people to believe it. In a state like Iowa, you only need 5% of the people to believe it and it will swing an election.

GEIST: And they hit him on the pin, remember? The American pin that he took off his lapel; he said "I'm not going to wear that anynore." So this was supposed to be another chapter in the story about him not loving America.

BRZEZINSKI: In this age of the internet, voters do have to be savvy. And they have to do their research. They have to know what information is coming to them that is legitimate.


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