If schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance, why shouldn't corporate board members and shareholders?
ONE OF the unlikeliest controversies of the 1988 presidential campaign was the "pledge issue" — Michael Dukakis's veto of a 1977 Massachusetts law requiring public school teachers to lead students each day in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dukakis had opposed the law, though it merely codified an old tradition of teaching children to honor the flag and "the Republic for which it stands," on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The Legislature emphatically overrode the governor's veto — singing "God Bless America" as it voted — but Dukakis refused to enforce the law. Eleven years later, running against Dukakis for the White House, Vice President George Bush made that veto an issue.
"What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?" Bush taunted. "It is very hard for me to imagine that the Founding Fathers . . . would have objected to teachers leading students in the pledge." Democrats denounced Bush for questioning Dukakis's patriotism, but the barb stung. It was effective because it reinforced a popular view of Dukakis — that he was one of those elitist know-it-alls who turn up their noses at the values and customs of Middle America.
"These are people who don't like things like the Pledge," said William Bennett, then US secretary of education. "They have disdain for the simple and basic patriotism of most Americans. They think they're smarter than everybody else; they don't like these kinds of rituals."
What brings this history to mind is a sheaf of letters sent to me by Ralph Nader, the self-described consumer advocate and longtime scourge of American business.
Nader has been writing to CEOs of the nation's largest corporations, raising the question of whether they feel any particular loyalty to the United States. American taxpayers, he points out, have certainly been loyal to them. "The tax code subsidizes foreign investment by US corporations. . . . The Export-Import Bank provides subsidies as loan guarantees for US multinationals, and a federal agency called OPIC [the Overseas Private Investment Corporation] insures these companies against political risks."
He could have added the roughly 125 corporate welfare programs that hand out pork to American business — for example, the Agriculture Department's Market Promotion Program, which pays companies to advertise abroad. Analysts at the Cato Institute have totted up $65 billion in annual subsidies to Big Business. That doesn't include the salaries of officials who act as pitchmen for American goods, the protectionist trade sanctions Washington slaps on many foreign exporters, or the commercial attaches posted in US embassies. And it doesn't include the soldiers and sailors who have fought — and sometimes died — to guard American investments.
Nader has been urging America's foremost corporations to make a voluntary show of support "to the country that bred them, built them, subsidized them, and defended them." How? By opening their annual shareholders' meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Nader's suggestion is no doubt mischievous. I'm sure his motives have less to do with patriotism than with embarrassing the corporate directors and managers he has spent a lifetime battling.
But whatever his motives, on the merits his idea is unassailable. US law and US liberty have allowed the owners of America's great companies to build empires of remarkable wealth and power. It would be appropriate indeed for those owners to pause once a year to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States — to this blessed nation of "liberty and justice for all."
Of the 100 corporations contacted by Nader, only one accepted his proposal. "We think the suggestion," said Federated Department Stores, "is a good one . . . and would be a positive statement on many levels."
Half of Nader's letters were ignored. Sears, Du Pont, Pepsico, IBM, and American Express were among corporations that never replied. Others acknowledged his request or rejected it without explanation. Citicorp was brusque: "It is not our practice to respond about [sic] what we consider the possible merits or disadvantages of every proposal that is made."
Some companies claimed that since their operations are wholly domestic, there is no reason for their shareholders to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. AT&T, Kodak, Coca-Cola, and many others argued the opposite — that the "global nature" of their business makes it impossible that those attending the annual meeting should stand for the flag. Ford Motor Co. flatly dismissed any feeling of American patriotism. "As a multinational . . . Ford in its largest sense is an Australian company in Australia, a British company in the United Kingdom, a German company in Germany."
Aetna CEO Richard Huber bluntly denounced Nader's suggestion as "contrary to the principles on which our democracy was founded." Motorola condemned the "political and nationalistic overtones" of the pledge. The CEO of PriceCostco, Jim Sinegal, snapped: "What do you propose next — personal loyalty oaths?" Kimberly-Clark's senior VP called the idea "a grim reminder of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s."
What a disgrace. Are dignified expressions of patriotism appropriate only before baseball games, but not when serious business is at hand? Is it only fifth-graders who should be urged to stand to honor the flag?
Nader isn't asking for corporate America's allegiance to him. He is asking that respect be shown to the flag. Apparently that is more than the CEOs and board chairmen of the Fortune 100 can abide. Why? What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets them so much?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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