Post-Gazette: Pledge incites Peters debateThursday, October 28, 2010
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Democrat Dan Connolly were about to give their opening remarks at a debate at Peters Middle School Tuesday when Mr. Murphy asked the moderator if the pledge was being recited. When she hesitated, saying that was "not a usual way" the league started the forums, members of the crowd stood and recited the pledge anyway.
Former Peters Township High School principal Tom Hajzus was sitting in the front row with a 22-year-old Marine veteran wounded by a bomb in Afghanistan.
"The insensitivity, to me, was inexcusable and outrageous," said the registered Democrat and Murphy supporter. The crowd's reaction "was an American moment, that's what that was," he said.
Web video of a similar incident at a League forum in Illinois last week was featured Monday night on Glenn Beck's show on Fox News, in which the conservative host compared the League to liberal groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Tides Foundation. "The League of Women Voters? Oh really? I'll add them to my list of people I don't trust anymore," Mr. Beck said.
The League of Women Voters, founded in 1920, typically includes the pledge only when a forum's hosts request one, said the co-chair of the greater Pittsburgh chapter, Arlene Levy. She said the league adheres strictly to its agendas -- whether they include a pledge or not -- to stay on schedule and keep the rules (which are pre-approved by campaigns) the same for everyone.
She helped host a 14th District debate, with no pledge, at Pittsburgh's Brashear High School Wednesday, with no complaints from the candidates or student-heavy crowd.
"There have been some groups who want to cause a ruckus, call attention to something, and using the pledge to the flag and making it seem like the League is unpatriotic," said the Highland Park resident. "We have no problems doing [the pledge]. It's patriotic to have candidates forums. We feel we're doing a public service by having nonpartisan candidates forums."
At Tuesday's meeting, two members of the Peters GOP committee, Buzz Rich and Bob Woeber, were discussing the Illinois incident at a GOP event before Tuesday's debate and decided to ask a League representative if the pledge would be recited. They understood it would, Mr. Woeber said. But when Mr. Murphy raised the issue at the forum and was told the pledge was not on the agenda, Mr. Woeber stood up and shouted "That is unacceptable and un-American!"
The pair began reciting it, whereupon the two candidates, the moderator and the crowd jumped in.
Video shows moderator Susan Reuther (who could not be reached for comment) looking flummoxed by the ad hoc move. "Next time if you have a request like that, we would appreciate it if you would give it to us when the rules are discussed," she said.
"It didn't need to be requested. I assumed you would do it," Mr. Murphy replied.
The Republican congressman said Wednesday he had not heard of the outcry on Fox News and elsewhere about the pledge, but was confused there was not one at the debate, having attended hundreds of public events where it was included. He refused to say whether he thought the League was partisan, but lauded the reaction of the crowd.
"It was inspiring to see the whole audience doing that. That was a good, heartwarming moment. With all the divisiveness in the country, it was good to see people united," he said. His opponent Mr. Connolly echoed that, saying "Honoring our country at the debate was definitely the right thing to do."
The League issued detailed information on debate agendas to candidates in advance of the forums and Mr. Murphy did not ask in advance that the pledge be included. He "didn't think it was something up for discussion or negotiation," he said Wednesday.
Political fights over the Pledge of Allegiance, which was officially adopted in 1942, are not new, most prominently when the phrase "under God" was added in 1954.
It was the subject of a book that published earlier this month by Thomas Dunne Books. "The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance," was written by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer.
The pledge was a major attack point on Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. As Massachusetts governor in 1977, Mr. Dukakis vetoed a bill fining teachers who did not lead classes in the pledge, saying it was unconstitutional. "What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?" his Republican opponent, George Bush, would say on the stump.
The latest uproar also fits nicely with the new Tea Party themes of American fundamentalism, reflected in everything from arguments about strict interpretation of the Constitution to Colonial-era tri-corner hats and "Don't Tread On Me" flags.
"It is very unpatriotic what's going on" at the League, said Mr. Woeber, "and agenda-driven."
According to Ms. Levy -- a former high school history and civics teacher who led students in the Pledge of Allegiance for 35 years -- one of the main reasons the League sponsors candidate forums is to have civil discussions about government policy in a time when the public discourse is not.
"Every time you're labeled or demonized it's not bringing people together. It's our hope people going to Congress will do that," she said.
The Pittsburgh League may discuss the pledge issue at its next board meeting Monday.
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