In the Great Patriotism Wars of 1990, you couldn't find two more sharply defined combatants than Bob Dole and Bob Kerrey.
They have much in common: Sen. Dole, R-Kan., lost the use of his right arm in a World War II firefight in Italy; Sen. Kerrey, D-Neb., lost a leg in Vietnam.
But when they verbally slugged it out 50 feet apart, Dole and Kerrey were separated by an unpassable gulf of generations and ideology.
Dole, sharp-tongued Republican leader, fiercely supported the proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, which was rejected by the House of Representatives Thursday, 254 to 177. (Indeed, he's haunted by a White House aide's remark, "Bush isn't going to demagogue on this -- that's what he has Dole for.") Kerrey, lean, dour Nebraska freshman, is appalled by flag-burning politics.
Their slugfest began when Dole lambasted "liberals who defend flag burners." Flag burning, raged Dole, "is malicious, stupid, irresponsible conduct, not free speech."
Looking at Kerrey, Dole said, "I know the senator from Nebraska has a distinguished war record and all that, but the average person seeing the flag go by feels it is important."
Kerrey wondered if Dole meant critics of the flag-burning amendment were not "real people"?
"Go up and down Main Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Russell, Kansas, ask the average American, the taxpayer, homemaker, worker, a great majority will agree," said Dole.
Stung by Dole's certitude, Kerrey unleashed one of the most impassioned denunciations of 1990. He recalled growing up in the Vietnam War era -- "If you were for it you were somehow cut off. . .an abyss, a separation."
"That," charged Kerrey of Bush's flag-burning crusade, "is what the president is trying to do. It is an attempt to divide America, to divide families again, not to heal the Vietnam War wounds but open them again."
Embedded in their debate were two surprises that, like photographic images, are taking shape: The political right that saw flag burning as a sure-fire issue tilting 1990 elections is discovering it doesn't have a monopoly on patriotic fervor. The flag-burning amendment, once an unstoppable freight train, is slowing down and may be derailed.
Kerrey is not a lone voice deriding Bush-Dole flag-burning cynicism. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., usually a Bush loyalist, predicted Americans will rethink the issue: "They're going to say, 'We aren't afraid of crackpots (who burn flags). We don't want a piece of the Constitution. We want all of it.'"
Basically, the Bush-Dole patriotic buncombe has run into Sen. Pat Moynihan's simple argument: "If you're for that flag, you're for the Bill of Rights. That's our message."
Sure, Dole's threat to "run 30-second spots" against opponents of the flag-burning amendment strikes terror in Democrats facing tight re-election races. But Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., had an answer.
"I jumped into combat with that flag sewn to my left shoulder," Sanford said on the Senate floor. "Do you want me to damage that document (Bill of Rights) so someone won't run a 30-second spot against me? Nothing doing."
Rhetoric will still fly in the Great Patriotic War. But Bob Kerrey has already called one bluff.