INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – Dogged by persistent rumors questioning his belief in country, Sen. Barack Obama journeyed to Middle America on Monday to lay out his vision of patriotism, conceding that he has learned in this presidential campaign that “the question of who is – or is not – a patriot all too often poisons our political debate.”
“Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given, ” Obama said in the 29-minute address to about 1,150 people crowded into a gymnasium at the Truman Memorial Building, named for former President Harry S. Truman. “It was how I was raised. It was what propelled me into public service. It is why I am running for president. And yet at times over the last 16 months, my patriotism has been challenged – at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for.”
Obama’s speech came on the same day that his rival for the White House, Sen. John McCain, pushed back hard against criticism of his own record as a Navy flier and a prisoner of war. On Sunday, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark questioned McCain’s qualifications for the White House. “He hasn’t held executive responsibility,” Clark said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.”
Obama rebuked that line of attack Monday, acknowledging McCain by name in saluting veterans “who have endured physical torment in service to our country.”
“No further proof of such sacrifice is necessary,” he said. “And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides.” In a statement, a spokesman for the senator from Illinois said that Obama “rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.”
Polls have shown that a small but statistically significant slice of the electorate continues to question Obama’s patriotism, especially in white, working-class regions.
The mere act of giving the speech just four months before Election Day was extraordinary for the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee. Obama has built his candidacy on the promise of change in a year in which a vast majority of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track. But he has repeatedly been forced to address false rumors that he will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, place his hand over his heart during the national anthem or wear an American flag pin on his lapel. He wore a flag pin for Monday’s speech.
Earlier this month, the Obama campaign started a Web site, Fight the Smears, to combat such allegations, even posting videos of the candidate leading the Pledge of Allegiance as he opened a Senate session. But among some circles, the beliefs have become ingrained – egged on by Internet videos such as one that pans over Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa with their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. In the video, Obama has his hands clasped in front of him. Another shows his wife, Michelle, saying that for the first time, she is proud of her country.
Obama tried to take the offensive on Monday, saying that he “will not stand idly by” while his patriotism is questioned.
Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., a key Obama adviser, said by e-mail: “At times in the past, Democrats have given the impression that they would rather not have the debate. Barack would prefer to engage in the debate. I am pleased that he is.”