American Passport Exceptionalism

Why does our passport boast so much about how wonderful America is?

Insert of a U.S. passport.
God shed his grace on thee.

Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Here’s a change Obama can make by executive order: redesign the “new” U.S. passport adopted by the State Department in the late Bush years.

Isn’t it kind of an embarrassment? I knew nothing of the redesign until I renewed my passport last fall. While the cover is still in basic blue, what unfolds now inside is a whole tie-dyed history of the United States. On nearly all of its 26 multicolored pages, there are quotes from great Americans, usually presidents, or at least their speechwriters, pumping up America.

Look, I’m a patriot, but aren’t 26 pages of quotes overdoing it? There are little patriotic koans on page after page; first, one from Francis Scott Key, with a sketch of him, climbing the rigging of his ship, looking out over burning Baltimore, in its pre-Wire incarnation; then one from Lincoln; then a picture of a frightening American eagle, its eyes rolling as wildly as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining; then there is a page for you, the passport holder (yes, you still get a page); then the preamble to the Constitution; then Daniel Webster (“The principle of free government adheres to the American soil. It is bedded in it, immovable as its mountain.”); then a line from George Washington; then an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, which does not identify Thomas Jefferson as the sole author, no doubt to the pleasure of John Adams; and then one from Martin Luther King Jr.; then come more pages, which belong respectively to John Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt (“This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.”), Dwight Eisenhower (“Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”), and Lyndon Johnson; then the inscription from the golden railroad spike. Then, in the back of the book, like the back of the bus, quotes from Anna Julia Cooper, Ellison Onizuka, and a Mohawk Indian who isn’t named.

Should I go on?

Well, the passport does, and by the last page we’re orbiting the moon.

I miss the way the old passport got to the point: “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

This venerable request is still in there, but now it’s competing with all this other patriotic blaring.

Something about this passport doth seem to protest too much. Page after page, it starts to seem neurotic. A border guard might begin to wonder whether we’re as wonderful and democratic as we insist we are. The old passports, not just in Jefferson’s time, but in Lincoln’s, in FDR’s, had nothing to prove. We knew we were a democracy, and in fact the only real democracy. Without us, back then, there would be no democracy. But in the 21st century, we’re just one of 150 or so. Look at Lincoln’s quote on page 2: “… And that government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.” In Lincoln’s time it was literally true. If government by the people perished with us, it would perish from the earth. Now, like it or not, it wouldn’t perish at all.

I visited Germany in September to see part of the German election. It was civil, well-behaved: There was a large turnout. I had to go abroad to see what a civil, high-turnout election looks like. And I’ll say this about Germany and countries like it: Even if their democracies are less than perfect, at least they don’t endlessly gloat in their passports how they are the great democracy. They lead from behind as we now might say. They just try to set a good example.  

I met a woman from Australia at the German election night party. I showed her my passport, to let her get a quick history of the United States. Could I see what was in hers? After all, it’s arguably Australia and not our country that’s the No. 1 democracy: It has compulsory voting and the highest voting rate in the world.

What’s in the Australian passport? There are wombats, dingoes, koalas, emus, and kangaroos, but they don’t say a word.