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Seasons Of The Flag
After years of ups and downs, Old Glory has just made its greatest comeback.
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
Yet toward the end of that decade of failed hostage rescues, stagflation, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, and the occasional nuclear accident, a public rebirth of the American flag was about to begin. At the Winter Olympics in upstate New York in February 1980, a motley band of American ice hockey players, on their path to the gold medal, upset the powerful Soviet team. The most lasting image of the games was goalie Jim Craig draped in an American flag, and the Stars and Stripes began to come out across the country. The sports columnist Pete Axthelm interviewed a woman who “hadn’t seen so many flags since the 1960s. When we were burning them.”
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign strenuously promoted the virtues of old-fashioned patriotism, and wherever the candidate went, so did the Red, White, and Blue. On January 20, 1981, Iran released its American hostages on the same day as Reagan’s inauguration. The Massachusetts State House, which had refused to raise the flag until their return, flew it that day. The Speaker of the Massachusetts House, a retired Marine, said that he hadn’t “been so happy at a flag raising since Iwo.”
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication parade in 1982, many of the participants marched with Old Glory, and when one veteran learned that the memorial had been designed without a flagpole, he questioned the omission, saying, “The flag is what we fought for, isn’t it?”
By the mid-eighties, popular entertainers were reflecting this new patriotism and interest in the flag. In 1984 Bruce Springsteen stood before the banner on the cover of Born in the U.S.A. album, and Lee Greenwood released “God Bless the U.S.A.” That same year, the public demand for souvenir flags flown over the Capitol building was so great that there was a two-year waiting list. Flag makers noted that business had ceased being seasonal and become steady, and in 1988 the largest of them, Annin & Company, recorded that its sales had increased about 25 percent since 1980.
Still, it could be argued that this resurgence of interest in the banner in part reflected the old divisions of Vietnam. The passions of the era were cooling, but the veterans were nonetheless replying to those who had decried their efforts, and in Springsteen’s songs there is a note of defiance, of the workingman making his statement against the cosseted types who in recent years had been too good to wave the flag. But if there was something querulous in the first President Bush’s increasingly urgent attempts to push through a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration as the eighties gave way to the nineties—it “endangers the fabric of our country,” he warned—it is also true that proposing such an amendment would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.
With the nineties came the Gulf War. When it was over, a Connecticut flag manufacturer claimed that while business had been good after the 1959 admission of Alaska and Hawaii and the bicentennial, “Desert Storm has surpassed them all.” A few seasons earlier, the designer Ralph Lauren had placed the flag on his extremely successful clothing line; in this calmer era, he fared far better than Abbie Hoffman had when he incorporated it on his own clothing. Later, Lauren donated 13 million to help refurbish the original Star-Spangled Banner.
As Cagney’s Cohan observed, it is when war comes to us that we look to Old Glory. War came to us with a vengeance on September n, and, as the journalist and historian Donald Morris writes, “Even the flag-waving is something that hasn’t been seen before; not even during the second World War.”
The recent actions of Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University, suggest how firmly rooted these newly displayed flags may be. As a president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in the sixties, he says, “Back then, I saw the flag as an affiliation with a fundamentally destructive and failed nation-state. The country failed to deliver on its promises.” Dr. Gitlin now believes that the corruption and violence of the past have been partly reversed by democratic movements arising in the sixties and that Old Glory “now affirms the possibilities that America stands for.” Although he refused to fly the flag in the 1980s because of its association with Reagan, he hung it in his Greenwich Village apartment for several weeks after the World Trade Center attack. “I put it up to express solidarity with New Yorkers in particular, and a community striving to repair and dig out of a catastrophe. It affirms my attachment to the community I belong to.” Asked if he’d ever imagined he’d be flying the flag, he laughs. “No, I never thought so.”
In 1867 Charles Sumner wrote of the American flag, “He must be cold indeed, who can look upon its folds rippling in the breezes without pride of country.” For the first time in a generation, it would seem that the great majority of his countrymen feel the same way.