John Kerry announced this week's John Kerry Iraq Policy of the Week the other day: "Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to deal with these intransigent issues and at last put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military."
With a sulky pout perhaps? With hands on hips and a full flip of the hair?
Did he get that from Churchill? "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, at least until May 15, when I have a windsurfing engagement off Nantucket."
Actually, no. He got it from Thomas Jefferson. "This is not the first time in American history when patriotism has been distorted to deflect criticism and mislead the nation," warned Sen. Kerry, placing his courage in the broader historical context. "No wonder Thomas Jefferson himself said: 'Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.' "
Close enough. According to the Jefferson Library: "There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson's correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes are: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' "
Did Kerry's speechwriter endeavor to point that out? "Hey, boss, diss ain't a Jefferson quote."
"Yeah, that's right. Dissent a Jefferson quote. Shove one in around the fifth paragraph, but snap it up, will you? I got a fitting for my new even-more-buttock-hugging yellow lycra cycling shorts in 20 minutes."
It was the Aussie pundit Tim Blair who noted the Thomas Jeffefakery. American commentators were apparently too busy cooing that "Kerry may be reflecting a new boldness on the part of liberals to come out and say what they believe and to reclaim the moral high ground on patriotism" (CBS News) to complain that KERRY LIED!! SCHOLARLY ATTRIBUTION DIED!!! Instead, KERRY MISQUOTED!! MEDIA DOTED!!!
Indeed, America's hardboiled newsmen can't get enough of the Thomas Jefferbunk. The Berkshire Eagle used it as the headline for last year's Fourth of July editorial. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press thundered: "We need to stop slicing this country in half, and saying those who support this act or this politician are 'good' Americans, and the rest are not. Sometimes 'dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' I didn't make that up. Thomas Jefferson did."
Er, no. You made up that he made it up. But former Georgia state Rep. Mike Snow uses it, and Miranda Yaver of Berkeley wore it on a button to the big anti-war demo in Washington last year, and Ted Kennedy deployed it as the stirring finale to his anti-Bush speech:
"It is not unpatriotic to tell the truth to the American people about the war in Iraq. In this grave moment of our country, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson, 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' "
The last time Sen. Kennedy went rummaging for an old quote was when he stood up at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston and announced that "here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shirt around the world." But at least several of those words are genuine, albeit not the reference to the menswear department.
As far as I can tell, it was Nadine Strosser, the ACLU's head honcho, who cooked up the Jefferson fake. At any rate, she seems to be the only one who ever deployed it pre-9/11. Since then, however, it's gone nuclear, it's everywhere, it's a bumper sticker and a T-shirt slogan and a surefire applause line for the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation. As Sen. Kennedy's brother so memorably said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what a fake quote can do for you."
What does it mean when so many senior Democrats take refuge in an obvious bit of hooey? Thomas Jefferson would never have said anything half so witless. There is no virtue in dissent per se. When John F. Kennedy said, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" and, believe it or not, that's a real quote, though it's hard to imagine any Massachusetts Democrat saying such a thing today I could have yelled out, "Hey, screw you, loser." It would have been "dissent," but it wouldn't have been patriotic, and it's certainly not a useful contribution to the debate, any more than that of the University of North Carolina students at Chapel Hill who recently scrawled on the doors of the ROTC armory "F- OFF!" and "WE WON'T FIGHT YOUR WARS!"
But the high holiness of dissent for its own sake is now the core belief of the Democratic Party: It's not what you're for, it's what you're against. Their current denunciations of Big Oil have a crudely effective opportunism but say to them "OK, what's your energy policy?" and see what answers you get: More domestic oil? Ooh, no, we can't disturb the pristine ANWR breeding ground of the world's largest mosquito herd. More nuclear power, like the French? Ooh, no, might be another Three Mile Island. Er, OK, you're the mass transit guys; how about we go back to wood-fired steam trains? Ooh, no, we're opposed to logging, in case it causes global warming, or cooling, or both.
Dissent for its own sake is like the Democrats' energy policy: We're opposed to any kind of energy; we prefer to be mired in enervated passivity. If the right is full of armchair generals, the left is full of armchair generalities: Nothing can be done, any course is futile, everything's a quagmire. All we can say for certain is that saying so for certain is the highest form of patriotism.
It's truer to say that these days patriotism is the highest form of dissent against a culture where the media award each other Pulitzers for damaging national security, and the only way a soldier's mom can become a household name is if she's a Bush-is-the-real-terrorist kook like Cindy Sheehan, and our grade schools' claims to teach our children about America, "warts and all," has dwindled down into teaching them all the warts and nothing else. Or as the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., concluded its ringing editorial on the subject:
"Thomas Jefferson got it right: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' And teaching children how to be thoughtful and effective dissenters is the highest form of education."
Teaching them authentic Jefferson quotes would be a better approach.