Keeping Sight On the Stars And Stripes

America's political conventions are still a year away. Who the parties will nominate for president remains to be seen.

But you can count on a few things now. Officials will make grandiloquent speeches; the conventioneers will cheer long and loud; and, everywhere imaginable, you will see the American flag.

Old Glory will be hung from the rafters and spread as telegenic wallpaper behind the speaker's podium. Miniature Stars and Stripes will discreetly adorn lapel pins while their larger brethren are wildly waved.

We know this because of the historical record. Take as Exhibit A the photograph displayed here. Monitor photographer Neal J. Menschel captured this image at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans.

A conventional-sized flag dominates the foreground, at hand for staging vigorous displays of fervid approval at a moment's notice.

Smaller flags bracket the face of the young man. These might give some people pause as to their appropriateness. Is proper dignity - granted, not always in large supply at political gatherings - being observed?

The young man's intent seems crucial. After all, burning is the correct and respectful way to dispose of a time-worn flag. But it can also be an act of disrespect and protest. The difference is all in the intent.

Wearing the flag - say, on a pants pocket, merely as a colorful or interesting pattern - discounts its meaning as a powerful symbol and can not be condoned.

But here the young man (Mr. Menschel never quite managed to wade close enough to catch his name) seems to love and respect his flags, wanting them perpetually, if tangentially, in view.

Are they blinders, keeping him from seeing all that is really going on? Or do they keep him undistracted and focussed on the message?

No matter: The candidate is entering the hall. The crowd roars. Flags bravely wave.

Hail to the chief!

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