YEARS ago and in another context, California political wiseman/wiseguy Jesse Unruh said, ``At times we have to rise above principle.'' That's not bad advice for George Bush and members of Congress running around with fire extinguishers looking for flag burners. Some lawmakers actually did that the other day, which makes about as much sense and demonstrates about as much real leadership as smashing a Toshiba boom box to protest Japanese trade policy.
Reacting to the recent Supreme Court decision, President Bush and others (Democrats and Republicans) are pushing an amendment to the US Constitution to prevent defacing or destroying the American flag. Like the phony pledge of allegiance issue in last year's election, this is wrapped in sanctimonious patriotism and political nervousness.
The fellow in Texas who actually burned the flag as a form of protest will be a very small and distasteful footnote in history. But his disgusting act should not be the reason for tampering unnecessarily with the Constitution, particularly its Bill of Rights protections of individual expression.
The Constitution should be changed only under the most necessary circumstances (like abolishing slavery or giving women the right to vote). As House Speaker Tom Foley said this week: ``The danger is not only amending the Constitution without necessity, it's lowering the level of resistance in the Congress and the country to amendments to the Constitution and most particularly to the First Amendment, which is the basis as we all know of speech, religious, and press liberty.''
Even passing a save-the-flag law that artfully ignores acts of offensive expression as protected by the Constitution and a string of Supreme Court rulings is unwise and unnecessary. Would it have prevented budget chief Richard Darman from showing off his red-white-and-blue undershorts at a recent White House staff meeting?
Charles Fried, conservative scholar and solicitor general in the Reagan administration, advises Congress to do nothing. So does Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (a certified hero who lost a leg and won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam). Once he'd cooled down and actually read the Supreme Court decision, he found it to be ``reasonable, understandable, and consistent with those values that I believe make America so wonderful.''
Quoting John Stuart Mill's ``On Liberty,'' Sen. Kerrey argues that even totally erroneous opinion - colliding with truth - can produce ``the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth.'' And as he told his colleagues, ``There is simply no line of Americans queuing up to burn our flag.'' Those are two more good reasons to ``rise above principle'' and forget about amending the Constitution.