Peggy Noonan’s Litmus Test

Does Obama love Sutter’s Mill? America demands an answer.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan 

When I think about all the hoops Barack Obama is being made to jump through in order to prove he’s a patriotic American, I feel nostalgic for the days when the press thought Obama’s biggest negative was his supposed inexperience relative to Hillary Clinton (see “Hillary’s Experience Lie“).

First Obama had to distance himself from some bizarre comments made by his former pastor. Then he had to explain why he doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin often enough to suit Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Then he had to distance himself from a former member of the Weather Underground to whom he was introduced when he decided to run for the Illinois Senate but with whom he has since had scant contact. Then he had to distance himself from Hamas, a terrorist organization he has repeatedly condemned, simply because its chief political adviser, Ahmed Yousefat, expressed admiration for him. Now Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal demands that Obama demonstrate he carries sufficient love within his breast for … Sutter’s Mill.

I’m not making this up. Here is what Noonan wrote:

Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama’s problem. America is Mr. Obama’s problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men’s Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over … the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter’s Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There’s gold in that history.

Let me pause here to point out that if Barack Obama were ever to refer to the ‘49ers of the California gold rush—even with affection—as “losers and brigands,” then Sean Hannity would demand his immediate impeachment from the Senate, Bill Kristol would cite it as evidence that Obama was a member of the Communist Party, and Noonan herself would grieve over this condescension toward the starry-eyed dreamers who constitute the heart, soul, and viscera of this proud land.

I’m sure Obama is as sentimental as the next guy about the Wright brothers and D-Day and George Washington (to whom he is distantly related). Henry Ford is a harder case. On the one hand, he is the father of mass production and the inventor of the Model T. On the other hand, he was a raving anti-Semite. Between 1920 and 1922, Ford published in the Dearborn Independent, which he owned, no fewer than 81 articles on what he called “The Jewish Problem in America.” These screeds were so odious that they prompted the resignation of the Dearborn Independent’seditor, who refused to print them. Ford’s rants about the international Jewish conspiracy, published in book form, were a formative influence on Baldur von Schirach *, leader of the Hitler Youth, according to von Schirach’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. One of these books—The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem—has been posted online by the American Nazi Party. At the very least, such affinities make it a challenge to love both Ford and D-Day, the Allied invasion that ultimately landed Ford’s most influential disciple in Spandau prison for 20 years.

But I digress. Of this golden history, Noonan continues:

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa’s knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Please note the presumption that it is impossible to acquire affection for the history of the United States in the states of Illinois, Massachusetts, or Connecticut, where Hillary Clinton lived before she lived in Arkansas. Conservatives long ago managed to establish as unchallengeable fact that the real America cannot be found in the places where a majority of its population resides. Exceptions are made for the greater Washington, D.C., area only when the persons involved belong to the U.S. military. No, America’s authentic heart beats only in the states where people are scarce, for the simple reason that the few people you do find there tend to be Republicans. One would think this widely accepted (if faulty) proposition would benefit Obama, since he hails from the sparsely populated state of Hawaii. But conservatives don’t recognize Hawaii as the real America (Vermont has this problem, too) because its inhabitants tend to vote Democratic. Never mind that it was a foreign power’s deadly attack on Hawaii that brought the U.S. into World War II. *

Noonan continues:

Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That’s why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country—any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?

Noonan is beating about the bush here. When people complain that a flag pin is too often absent from Obama’s lapel—and I am not convinced very many people do—it’s for the same reason that Henry Ford complained that a yarmulke was too often present on Bernard Baruch’s head. It’s because they don’t believe such people are one of us. Baruch was the Other because he was Jewish. Obama is the Other because his (largely absent) father was a foreigner from Kenya, because he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and the rest of it in Hawaii, and because his mother was, in the New York Times’ words, “a free-spirited wanderer.”

Noonan is ready for this line of attack:

Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they’re questioning its content, its fullness.

If you object to having your patriotism questioned on the basis of your religion, or your foreign parentage, or your having lived in a foreign country, or your having lived in Hawaii, or your harboring “lefty” beliefs, then according to Noonan you are “snooty.” Calm down, Noonan says. I’m not questioning whether you’re patriotic. I’m questioning whether you’re patriotic enough. This is a distinction without a difference.

Then, of course, there’s race. Is Noonan characterizing Obama as the Other because he’s black? I’d find this interpretation hard to dismiss if Noonan hadn’t already assured me, in her Journal column of Feb. 8, that

No consultant, no matter how opportunistic and hungry, will think it easy—or professionally desirable—to take [Obama] down in a low manner. If anything, they’ve learned from the Clintons in South Carolina what that gets you. (I add that yes, there are always freelance mental cases, who exist on both sides and are empowered by modern technology. They’ll make their YouTubes. But the mad are ever with us, and this year their work will likely stay subterranean.)With Mr. Obama the campaign will be about issues. “He’ll raise your taxes.” He will, and I suspect Americans may vote for him anyway. But the race won’t go low.

It seems to me that with this column the race has already gone “low,” even if Noonan didn’t mean to suggest that an African-American must be assumed unpatriotic until proven otherwise. Do you know what I love about America? I love that one isn’t pestered on an hourly basis about one’s presumed failure to be patriotic, or patriotic enough, or patriotic in the right way. We are a tolerant people who tend to judge all, including presidential candidates, as individuals. For the most part, anyway. An exception must be made for conservative pundits like Noonan who make their living by imagining the United States to be overrun with xenophobic, bigoted morons; who pretty up that misapprehension by calling it patriotism; and who then try to foment culture war in the name of these make-believe “real Americans.” As to this latest litmus test, I doubt Obama has strong feelings one way or another about the prospectors who overran Sutter’s Mill in 1849, though he may now be forced to pretend that he does. Why a grown woman, much less a member of the working press, should pose such an idiotic question is not easy to understand.

Correction, May 1, 2008: An earlier version of this column misspelled von Schirach’s name. (Return  to the corrected sentence.) Also, an earlier version of this column stated that Hawaii was “the most recent place in the United States to be attacked by a foreign power.” In fact, that distinction belongs to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which Japan invaded six months after it bombed Pearl Harbor. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)