Politics

What's the Last Refuge of an Unpatriotic Scoundrel?

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President Calvin Coolidge and Osage Nation representatives at Capt. Wilton Parmenter's Medal of Honor ceremony.

Now that the Democrats control everything in Washington except the Redskins I watch only FOX News, so I've learned that President Obama ends every speech with a rousing "Death to America!"

I'd welcome a textual analysis to the contrary, but I think it's fair to say Obama shows a taste for critical comments about American history and skepticism about U.S. behavior that has not been seen since the administration of Jimmy Carter. His speech in Cairo last week contained trace amounts of both, and I've learned that his Normandy address contains a satanic parody version of Ronald Reagan's "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech if you play it backward. Finally, I think it's within bounds to question a president's patriotism.

What I wonder is this: Does it matter whether or not a president loves his country? The office is set up along strictly rational terms, as a short-duration, limited-powers executive job. We don't expect every head of a company to love the company more than life itself, and in fact there are times when that would be a drawback. As you turkey-bowl your way through the night shift at Safeway, do you take more comfort in knowing your manager would give her life for Safeway or in knowing that she's got a good head for numbers? Same question if you have the mixed fortune to be a Safeway customer.

It's true that a country expects shows of loyalty that an employer generally doesn't—one of which is a willingness by some citizens to put their lives at hazard. By that yardstick, merely being the president makes you a patriot: Statistically, you're more likely to survive tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan than to survive the U.S. presidency. And anyway it's a perversion of the word "service" to say a corporal carrying out orders in an active battle space and a president with a vast personal bodyguard and thrilling social life are both serving their country.

Of course, all theoretical arguments crumble before the terrible relic of Jimmy Carter. But two of Carter's longest national nightmares—the boycott of the Olympic games and the Iran hostage rescue debacle—were arguably results of his being too patriotic, of putting a firm national stance above other considerations.

But since there's more to making love than firm stances, I'll leave the question out there: Does it matter if a president loves the country, or loves it more or less than another president?