BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Seventeen years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning the desecration of the American flag were unconstitutional, so there's been an effort in every Congress since 1990 to change the Constitution. Sure enough, this week, the Senate took up a proposal, already approved in the House, for a constitutional amendment to permit anti-desecration laws.
JOHN CORNYN: The American flag is a monument, a symbol of our freedom, our country and our way of life. Why in the world would we refuse to protect it against desecration?
FRANK LAUTENBERG: Here he is, Kid Rock, with his head through the flag. Is that a desecration? It was such a desecration that he was invited to address the Republican Convention, and they partied with him, and they loved him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Texas Republican John Cornyn in support of the amendment and New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg against. In past years, the vote has been largely symbolic, but this time the measure was just one yea shy of carrying the day. It's worth noting, though, that Old Glory wasn't always the political rap of choice. Until the Civil War, it was primarily a military symbol. Ordinary citizens didn't necessarily mist when they saw it and rarely flew it themselves. But that changed almost overnight, says Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography. The turning point was the fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861.
MARC LEEPSON: It was almost like what happened after September 11th. All of a sudden where you didn't see flags, flags appeared everywhere, in front of people's houses, businesses, stores, the schools. You know, women wore them in their hats, men put them on their wagons and their horses and lapels. And that is the start of what's been called the "cult of the flag." You know, during the Civil War, in the northern newspapers and editorials, the war was portrayed as a fight for the flag. I mean, the song "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys" was written during the Civil War. The actual flag that was taken down at Fort Sumter was taken north to rallies, and people, you know, rendered their garments or, you know, people cried, and it was treated almost as if it were a religious object.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the Civil War ended and the soldiers went home. The flag had become a kind of religious object. What did it turn into?
MARC LEEPSON: Well, it's interesting to note that the first flag protection laws started in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and they were a result of, really, advances in color printing and mass production. Because once that happened, the image of the American flag was put on every possible commercial product you can name. And sort of the straw that broke the camel's back was when the image of the flag started appearing on beer bottles and whiskey bottles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a flag protection pamphlet in 1902 that denounced the use of a flag in, quote, "advertisements of beer, sauerkraut, candy, itch ointment, pile remedies or -
MARC LEEPSON: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - as miniature pocket handkerchiefs on which to blow noses."
MARC LEEPSON: Yes. [LAUGHS] Right. And, you know, the first flag protection non-profit groups grew up at that time, and then they lobbied states. And by the turn of the century, by 1900, there were flag protection laws in 48 of the 50 states. They were actually ratcheted up during World War One. For instance, in some states, if you said anything bad about the flag, you can be put in jail. And this was aimed at German immigrants and German-Americans who people felt might not be patriotic during the First World War. And there were people prosecuted all over the country and sent to jail for doing things like displaying the German flag or saying something bad about the American flag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there have been a lot of attempts, going back to the 1800s, to get the federal government to adopt flag protection legislation, but I guess it took the Vietnam War and the struggles there to get it to spur Congress.
MARC LEEPSON: In the Vietnam War, the flag for the first time was used as a symbol both by those who supported the war and those who protested the war. Those who were opposed to the war flew the flag upside down. There were flag burnings, and then, as you said, it also led to the first federal flag protection law, which Congress passed in 1968.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People were prosecuted under the law passed in 1968, weren't they?
MARC LEEPSON: Yes, they were. And it is really interesting. If you look at a picture of the flag shirt that Abby Hoffman wore on Capitol Hill in 1968, when he was arrested, which he purchased at Sears, by the way-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
MARC LEEPSON: [LAUGHS] – and then look at the shirt that General Myers, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wore at the Rolling Thunder rally in May of 2004, almost the identical shirt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the issue more about what we do to the flag or why we do it to the flag?
MARC LEEPSON: That's a good question. I mean, when you see a car dealer who has the biggest American flag you've ever seen, or 50 huge American flags, you know, what is that? Is that a show of patriotism? Is it an advertising gimmick? You know, it's really difficult to sort of put motives on the use of the flag like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it seems to me this is about a lot more than the flag.
MARC LEEPSON: Well, obviously it is. Yeah. I mean, I don't think it's any coincidence that this proposed constitutional amendment came up now, with the 2006 elections coming up. You have to keep in mind this is a very emotional issue on all sides. But it's interesting to keep in mind here that the Flag Resolution, the Flag Resolution, June 14, 1777, you know, we don't know who introduced it. We don't know if there was any debate. We don't know who voted for it or who voted against. You know why? Because it's just one line in the annals of the Continental Congress. They were doing something else, and then the next line says, "Resolve, the flag of the United States shall be 13 stripes, alternate red and white, 13 stars, white in a blue field as in a constellation." And then they went on to something else. They just didn't feel the way we do about the flag back then.