published Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Cook: Veterans, flags and patriotism

Caroline Johnson got to work at 8 o'clock on Tuesday morning. The first thing she did was answer her telephone.

"It was ringing when I walked in," she said.

Johnson works in the city of Chattanooga's Department of Transportation where she does many things, but Tuesday, she did mostly one: accept donation after donation to replace the American flags that fly on Veterans Bridge.

"I've had many, many calls this morning," she said.

In Tuesday's Times Free Press, city reporter Joy Lukachick wrote about the state of the bridge flags. For the last 10 years, an anonymous donor has funded each season's set of 30 flags, which fly from May through Veterans Day and must be routinely replaced because of wear, tear and Mother Nature.

That anonymous gift ended this year, so the city put out a call last week to see if enough people would be interested in honoring a vet by donating $75 to buy a new flag. Four donations immediately came in; city Councilman Jerry Mitchell made five.

Tuesday morning, as readers across the area opened their newspaper, the city needed 15 new flags.

By 10 a.m., they barely needed any. One daughter bought a flag for her WWII father. One couple came in and bought a flag to honor their grandson who'd died three years ago in Afghanistan.

"Bronze star. Purple Heart. He was a medic," Johnson said.

Johnson started taking donations for extra flags to be used in the seasons to come. By 1 in the afternoon, she'd taken 36 orders. By 4 p.m.?

"41," she said.

Surprised? Not me. Not in the slightest. Her ringing phone is a fine barometer we can use to measure the civic goodheartedness of our city. How awful would it have been if her phone had never rang. How magnificent it hasn't stopped. Most of the calls she got?

"They want to honor their grandfather," she said.

And?

"Grandparents who want to honor grandchildren serving currently," she said.

Grandparents honoring grandchildren, and vice versa. There are many things wrong with our country. This is not one of them.

"It's a great and easy way to show respect," Johnson said.

I'd like to suggest another.

Several Sundays ago, Mike Morell -- who just retired as deputy director of the CIA -- spoke to "60 Minutes" about his career in espionage. He was involved in the invasion of Iraq, there with President George W. Bush on 9/11, and has been part of all the important CIA crossroads: drones, Snowden, the debate on torture.

Know what may frighten him the most of all? His answer on "60 Minutes" -- which follows in italics -- is one of the most sobering things I've heard all year.

What really keeps me up at night is the inability of our government to make decisions that push our economy and our society forward. One of the things I learned looking at the world is that a country's national security -- any country's national security -- is more dependent on the strength of its economy and the strength of its society than anything else.

I think there is for some reason I don't understand there's been a change from a willingness of the two parties to work together to get things done to today the two parties at each other's throat and simply trying to score political points. And I don't know why that's occurred. And I don't know have a good understanding of how to fix that but that is what needs to be fixed.

Imagine if one of our politicians came to Veterans Bridge and ripped the flags down. Stomped on them. Burned them. Threw them into the river. We'd go ape-crazy-angry; they'd be out of office by sundown.

So why do we let them continue this unending grudge match in Washington? It's the political equivalent of flag burning, a dynamic that's able to wedge its way into our national structure, toppling it like the last Jenga block.

Not terrorism. Not greed. But lack of leadership.

What really keeps me up at night is the inability of our government to make decisions that push our economy and our society forward.

It's time for a new patriotism. Something for the new century. Call it Patriotism 2.0.

Keep all the tried and true: civics, the Pledge, service, love of country, God bless America.

But we must add new wrinkles: humility, vulnerability, the ability to be wrong. The desire to find common ground. Most of all, the maturity to see the good in a political opponent and his or her ideas.

We may buy all the flags we want, but unless we figure out the higher ways of politics, it may not matter. Those flags on the bridge don't fly just for Republicans, or only for Democrats. It's time politicians remembered that.

Just ask our grandparents and grandchildren.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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