Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag

by Lorin Michel Saturday, September 23, 2017 8:22 PM

One of our favorite movies is the 1995 film The American President. It’s a political romantic comedy that’s smart and honest and real. It stars Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower about to run for re-election, and Annette Bening, a lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade who becomes his love interest. It was written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a real gem.

One of the central posits of the film is that President Shepherd is playing it safe, too safe. His erstwhile rival for the presidency is a republican senator named Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss with nasty political glee. He repeatedly skewers the president for being liberal, and then attacks the president’s girlfriend, Sydney, as an ultra-liberal flag burner. He smugly dismisses the president’s education by saying that it doesn’t take a “Harvard education.” Shepherd, watching, irritatingly tells the TV “I went to Stanford, you blow hole.” That last phrase has become a favorite around here lately since I’ve been taking classes at Stanford and start my official 2-year program there on Monday.

President Shepherd’s staff as well as Sydney tell him to “go after this guy.” But Shepherd steadfastly refuses. He and Sydney split up, he has a fight with his chief of staff (the always wonderful Martin Sheen who went on to also play one of Sorkin’s presidents), and is about to lose his one big bill, for crime prevention. His approval ratings have plummeted, he is shedding supporters even in his own party. So naturally, he attacks black athletes who peacefully protest inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. 

Oh, wait. That would be a president I don’t like. 

I read the news today – oh boy – and once again all I could do was shake my head. I am continually amazed, even though I shouldn’t be, that we have as our president a man who is perfectly content to sow the seeds of discord and division. I honestly don’t care if athletes kneel during the anthem. We have free speech and freedom of expression in this country. Many veterans as well as those currently on active duty have said that they get the protests; that it’s why they fought and continue to fight. For our rights as Americans. The athletes aren’t all black though most of them are. And most of those criticizing them, including the toddler in chief, are white. As if any of us white folk can imagine for a minute what it’s like to be black, to live with the issues that that segment of Americans live with. I’m not black and don’t know what it feels like so I choose to respect that they do.

Their protests are peaceful. They’re not causing riots. They’re simply making a statement. But last night, Trump decided they should be fired. He called an unnamed athlete who is widely thought to be Colin Kaepernick a son of a bitch. Kaepernick is the one who started these protests. He currently can’t get a job in the NFL, partly because he hasn’t been as good the last few years but I have no doubt that it’s mostly because of the protests. I think that’s sad.

We rally around the flag when it’s convenient and easy but most people rarely stop to think about what that flag stands for. Freedom, the constitution, our bill of rights. It is a beacon. It’s a symbol. But it’s not all that America is. It’s just one representation. Another is how we conduct ourselves in the world, the face we show to others, our insistence on human rights, our welcoming of refugees. The White House is a symbol; the Statue of Liberty is a symbol. Our despotic president is another, sadly. And he is making us worse, making our flag disrespected all over the world. Do the people who want athletes like Colin Kaepernick fired realize that? Do they care? Does Trump? 

Andrew Shepherd finally realizes the error of his ways, and does the right thing, junking his terrible bill, and taking on Rumson in a fabulous speech in front of the White House press corps. He doesn’t do it to get Sydney back, as he later tells her. He does it because “the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” 

Watch the whole speech and tell me it doesn’t make you a little nostalgic for a truly American president:

Tell me it doesn’t make you want to celebrate the genius of Aaron Sorkin.

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