Law & Courts

Campaign Notebook

March 31, 2004 3 min read

Democrats Speak Softly In the Debate Over Wording Of Pledge of Allegiance

Election 2004

Pledge of Allegiance controversy? What Pledge of Allegiance controversy?

Anyone who followed the Democratic presidential campaign while its outcome was in contention last year and early this year would have been hard pressed to find references by the candidates to the flap over the words “under God” in the pledge.

It appears the Democrats saw little to gain and much to lose by wading into the debate over the opinion by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, that struck down teacher-led recitations of the pledge two years ago.

The case is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.

The Democrats may have been keeping in mind the experience of their party’s 1988 nominee, then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. Mr. Dukakis was slammed, to great effect, by Republican nominee George H.W. Bush for vetoing a bill requiring teachers to lead the pledge.

Then-Vice President Bush said repeatedly during that campaign that he would have signed such a bill. In 1977, Gov. Dukakis vetoed the measure after the state’s highest court issued an advisory opinion suggesting that the proposed law was unconstitutional. It cited, among other points, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which held that public schoolchildren could not be required to recite the pledge.

The Massachusetts legislature overrode Gov. Dukakis’ veto.

The current President Bush has not hesitated to speak up for the pledge as revised by Congress in 1954 to include the two words at issue. “When we pledge allegiance to one nation under God, our citizens participate in an important American tradition of humbly seeking the wisdom and blessing of Divine Providence,” the president said in a letter to a Hawaii resident in November 2002. And his solicitor general, Theodore B. Olson, defended the inclusion of “under God” in the March 24 oral arguments. (“High Court Hesitant to Bar Pledge in Schools,” this issue.)

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has had somewhat less to say on the subject. But he is on record as supporting the pledge as revised in 1954.

Kathy Roeder, a spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign, said the candidate likes the wording of the pledge.

“He supports leaving it as is,” Ms. Roeder said last week. “He hopes the Supreme Court will overturn the other ruling and leave [the pledge] the way it is.”

On June 26, 2002, shortly after the controversial 9th Circuit court ruling, the Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution expressing support for the pledge. Sen. Kerry was among the 99.

On March 4, 2003, after the full 9th Circuit court decided not to rehear the case, the Senate saw the need to give the pledge another show of support. The vote that time was 94-0. Among the six senators not present that day were Mr. Kerry, and two other senators then pursuing the Democratic nomination, John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida.

According to the Congressional Record, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic whip, noted that if present, Sens. Kerry and Edwards would have voted in favor of the resolution.

To further clarify the record, Mr. Kerry served as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts under Gov. Dukakis—but not when the pledge bill came before the governor in 1977. Mr. Kerry joined the Dukakis ticket in 1982.

To the Moon

Appearing on a television interview show March 21 to talk up his party’s presumed nominee, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., offered a well-worn analogy to which he holds perhaps a special claim in criticizing President Bush’s record on education.

Several times during the segment on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Kennedy told host Tim Russert that Mr. Bush has not supported adequate funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. He said that if his fellow Massachusetts senator is elected president, Mr. Kerry will find the extra federal cash needed to help states and districts implement the law.

Then he invoked the memory of another Massachusetts senator—and president—to drive home his point.

“We expect 100 percent performance from the children, and we’re leaving 4.5 million children out of that,” Sen. Kennedy said. “That isn’t—when President Kennedy decided to go to the moon, he didn’t support sufficient funds to go up 250 miles.”

—Lisa Goldstein & Erik W. Robelen

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