Answer Man

Answer Man: Nobody should salute this bogus email

Q. I recently received an email claiming that before he was elected president, President Obama appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sept. 7, 2008, and was asked by retired Air Force Gen. Bill Gann why Obama did not put his hand over his heart for the national anthem. Among other things, Obama reportedly replied, “As I’ve said about the flag pin, I don’t want to be perceived as taking sides.” Is this true?

— R.W., of Marissa

A. With even former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani recently claiming that Obama as a 9-year-old was brainwashed by Communists and does not love America, I suppose nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to piling on the president. But when it comes to smear campaigns, this email may rank among the sleaziest top 10 (although considering how many there are floating around, that might be difficult to narrow down).

Like most spam, it is based on a grain of truth. On Sept. 17, 2007, Obama appeared with five other Democratic presidential candidates at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual meet-and-greet in Indianola, Iowa. During the playing of the anthem, Obama is seen standing on the makeshift stage with his hands clasped at his waist while three other people (including Hillary Clinton) have their hands over their hearts as is called for by U.S. Code Title 36, Section 171. The picture soon ran in Time magazine, drawing a storm of protest from opponents.

Asked to explain the miscue, Obama said, “My grandfather taught me when I was 2: During the Pledge of Allegiance, you put your hand over your heart. During the national anthem, you sing.”

Even patriotism experts said it was, at most, a minor infraction unworthy of a national brouhaha. In fairness, many more pictures soon were posted of Obama having put his hand over his heart at other functions.

“I think the bottom line is that you show respect with your demeanor,” said Anne Garside, of the Maryland Historical Society, home of the original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “Whether you put your hand over your heart, hold your hat at shoulder level or waist level, is really in this day and age irrelevant.”

But as you’ve discovered, people would not let it drop — and that’s how this email took on a life of its own. On Oct. 27, 2007, political writer John Semmens ended his column in The Arizona Conservative with the following item:

“Hot on the heels of his explanation for why he no longer wears a flag pin, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama was forced to explain why he doesn’t follow protocol when the national anthem is played. ‘As I’ve said about the flag pin, I don’t want to be perceived as taking sides,’ Obama said. ‘There are a lot of people in the world to whom the American flag is a symbol of oppression. And the anthem itself conveys a war-like message. You know, the bombs bursting in air and all. It should be swapped for something less parochial and less bellicose. I like the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” If that were our anthem, then I might salute it.’”

But Semmens’ column is called “Semi-News: A Satirical Look at Recent News.” Obama said no such thing. It was a joke Lorne Michaels might have used on “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update.

That didn’t make any difference. By September 2008, Obama-bashers were taking this quote, omitting Semmens’ snide intent and sending it around the blogosphere as gospel. As you’ve also found, they embellished it by claiming Obama said it on “Meet the Press” after being called on the carpet for the faux pas by the retired Air Force general. Some versions even charge that Obama was quoted on his plans to “disarm America” and “end hostilities” with Islamic nations.

Guess what? None of it happened. If you check a “Meet the Press” synopsis for Sept. 7, 2008, you’ll see that the guests were Sen. Joe Biden (his 42nd appearance) and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. No Obama talking about patriotism. No Gann. And, for those who don’t trust me, you can read the entire transcript at

So, there you have the anatomy of an urban legend that’s no truer than Obama flashing an Islamic gang sign in a photo last summer or Michelle Obama ordering expensive room-service items at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York (a “news” item that forced the New York Post to run a retraction). My advice is to tone up your index finger by deleting this trash even before opening it. Final note: Please do not criticize me for not capitalizing “national anthem.” It’s Associated Press style.

Today’s trivia

What major contribution to mathematics did Robert Recorde make in 1557 that is now used by everyone from grade school students on up?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: From her earliest days as a girl growing up in Massachusetts, Ruth Elizabeth Davis was called “Betty” by her family and friends. When she was in early teens, she decided she wanted to become an actress after seeing Rudolph Valentino in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and Mary Pickford in “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” both in 1921. But she apparently didn’t think “Betty” was chic enough, so she changed the spelling of her name to “Bette” in honor of “Cousin Bette” (“Le Cousin Bette”) by French author Honore de Balzac, according to “The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography” by Charlotte Chandler. The 1846 novel tells the story of an unmarried middle-age woman who plots the destruction of her extended family and often is considered Balzac’ last great work before he died four years later. Sounds like it could have been a great role for Davis, but she was not included in any of three film adaptations during her life.