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Photo by Jeanne RiceHuntington Beach City Councilwoman Debbie Cook isn't exactly antimilitary. Her father served in World War II and Korea, her uncle fought at Iwo Jima, and two of her brothers wore uniforms during the Vietnam War. Even her great-grandfather had a military record: during the Civil War, he was a Union Army foot soldier.
So Cook wasn't trying to offend military people or their families on April 21 when she became the only council member to vote against placing yellow ribbons on every official vehicle in Huntington Beach until all U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf return home. Neither did she suspect that by doing so, she would unleash a storm of jingoistic outrage that may threaten to push her out of office.
But that's exactly what has happened. The yellow-ribbon drive is sponsored by the California chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the same youthful, gung-ho conservatives who staged French wine-spilling spectacles in Los Angeles and called for the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. Shortly after the April 21 City Council meeting, YAF posted a video of Cook's comments on its website, www.yellowribbonamerica.com.
It has created the biggest scandal to rock Surf City since at least a year ago, when then-Mayor Cook discontinued the practice of starting each council meeting with an official prayer.
As for the yellow ribbons, Cook questioned how long they would be tied to trees and car antennas, pointing out that U.S. troops have already been in Afghanistan for 18 months and more soldiers are being sent abroad every day. "If we're looking at years and years of seeing these [ribbons] on poles, they start to look ragged," she argued. "It's like an American flag on a car that is all shredded."
Cook wondered aloud whether groups who support victims of breast cancer and AIDS would now demand the city put up pink or red ribbons to support their causes. "Maybe we need an official policy on this," she said. "I would encourage people to actually consider doing something to contribute, something rather than just the typical jingoism we get so hung up on during these times. . . . Of course I support the troops. But this becomes meaningless. Just because you put a ribbon or a flag on your lapel does not make you patriotic."
Since uttering those words, Cook has received countless e-mails from pissed-off Americans from all over the country, most of them from outside her own city:
•"Feminazi, liberal, agenda-pushing 'women' like you make me sick. . . . The people of Huntignton [sic] Beach deserve much better than you. I hear Communist China is looking to elect some new leaders."
•"Take some advice, Mrs. Cook. Enroll in an American History class at your local community college, and forget about the Karl Marx philosophy YOU studied in college! It doesn't apply here!!"
•"What a bitch you are! Shame on you!"
•"Seems like you probably are a Dixie Chick, too. Too bad you aren't 'politically' sensitive as too [sic] the needs of our troops. If they were all gay, you would probably support pink ribbons?"
•"You're not just an ordinary idiot, but, worse, an idiot who really doesn't like America very much. In other words, a liberal. . . . The vast majority of Americans want to express their appreciation for our military men and women as they put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan, [instead of] Islamicist rag-head sociopaths who would impose their version of the Taliban on us except that people like me would shoot them and blame America first, last and always liberals like yourself."
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Cook has also received many letters of support, most of which are from her own constituents. Bob Polkow, a Surf City resident and "card-carrying" member of the American Legion and Disabled Veterans, wrote to tell her that he "totally" agreed with her vote. A resident of a nearby city said she wished Cook was on her city council. "I loved how you defined the whole yellow ribbon campaign as rather 'jingoistic,'" she wrote, "although I'm sure that a lot of those supporters do not know what that word means."
Brad White, a reserve member of the California National Guard and a YAF member who helped organize the yellow-ribbon project, is one of those supporters. He spoke at the April 21 council meeting. White said he took offense at Cook's refusal to support the yellow-ribbon campaign, adding that YAF was just trying to "do a small thing for the guys and gals in the field. I'm not trying to be mushy about it."
Because YAF was raising donations to help pay for the ribbons, there would be no cost to the city, he said.
White distanced himself from what he called "inappropriate" personal attacks on Cook. However, White said he was more offended that Cook called the yellow-ribbon campaign "jingoistic"—but only after he consulted a dictionary.
"I had to look up 'jingoism,'" White said. "I thought it meant commercials—you know, like jingles —but I looked it up, and it's kind of a derogatory statement."