BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Education Secretary William Bennett's stinging blast against Michael Dukakis's hometown has re-opened the festering sores of a five-year battle over the Pledge of Allegiance at town meetings.
Bennett's salvo against the Boston suburb of Brookline has also helped close ranks among otherwise rival factions in the upper middle-class town of 59,000 where the Democratic presidential candidate was reared.
'They don't like things like the pledge,' Bennett said of Brookline and nearby Cambridge, communities he became familiar with during the eight years he attended Harvard University or worked at Boston University.
'They have disdain for the simple and basic patriotism that most Americans believe,' Bennett said. 'They think they are smarter than everyone else.'
Brookline Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Allen demanded an apology for the 'slander' and said, 'Having a presidential candidate come from your hometown is a great source of pride.'
'I don't think the town should be subjected to criticism and mudslinging just because of the fact Mike Dukakis comes from Brookline,' Allen added.
James Dorsey, a Dukakis spokesman, dismissed Bennett's remarks as 'a mindless insult in keeping with the really low tone which he has set in his stewardship of education.'
Bennett's comments echoed Vice President George Bush's attack on the Massachusetts governor's 1977 veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead their students in the pledge. It also stirred memories of bitter town debates on whether the pledge should be recited or or the National Anthem sung at town meetings.
The issue surfaced in 1983 when elected town meeting member Robert Kahn suggested 30 seconds be set aside for the voluntary recitation of the pledge. The proposal was narrowly defeated and replaced with the singing of the anthem.
The question resurfaces annually, renewing tensions despite increasingly lopsided rejections. In one instance, Kahn said he was placed under 'arrest' for the duration of a meeting.
Town moderator Carl Sapers, who called Bennett's remarks 'xenophobic and foolish,' said the question has been blown out of proportion.
Calling Kahn a 'two-bit demagogue,' Sapers said many people believe the effort 'wasn't really a disinterested patriotic gesture but a way of somehow forcing people to show their allegiance.'
'I suppose there are ways of defining patriotism which may include other factors beside an interest in saluting the flag. The town of Brookline has a tradition going back to the 18th century of governing itself by participation of the people. That is as much a tradition to the patriotic spirit of America as anything I know.'
Kahn responded by blaming 'pseudo-liberals' controlled by Dukakis for rejecting his proposal after raucous debates that included catcalls of 'fascist' and 'McCarthyite.'
Kahn believes the pledge flap shows Brookline to be 'the most unpatriotic town in America' and will contribute to Dukakis's undoing.
'What you are doing when you vote down the voluntary Pledge of Allegiance is you are taking a knife and thrusting it in the back of Governor Dukakis and his campaign for the presidency,' he told town meeting members this year.
Kahn also had sharp words for Dukakis, who has sent 'a clear and unmistakable message that in order to appease and placate the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party he was opposed in principle to the mandatory as well as voluntary Pledge of Allegiance.
'He personally created this issue and now he has to live or die politically with it,' he said.