In the flag flap, one cliche of choice is the observation that free speech does not protect somebody who shouts fire in a crowded theater.
Another is the warning that to amend the Bill of Rights would set the government on a slippery slope toward censoring dissent.One is pro, one is con; both were uttered again and again as the House debated and rejected a constitutional amendment against flag desecration. The lines got another workout in the Senate this week. After a full year of political argument, there isn't anything to be said that hasn't been said before, more than once.
For the record, the crowded theater argument is a slightly amended version of a 1919 observation by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic," Holmes held. Advocates of the constitutional amendment, President Bush among them, cited that argument in varied versions to contend that there are limits to free speech and that one of them should ban flag burning.
For all the hours of talk, the flag debate didn't produce any major league cliches. Maybe that's because nobody figured out a way to quote Yogi Berra on this one. The Hall of Fame Yankee catcher, later a manager, now a senior baseball adviser to the Houston Astros, is being quoted by politicians on most everything else.
Budget, taxes, arms control negotiations, trade talks, Berra's sometimes fractured adages are turning up regularly.
"It was like what Yogi Berra said, 'deja vu all over again,'" President Bush said a while back, when he visited his old Republican headquarters.
In a more scholarly mode, arms negotiator Richard Burt wrote early this month that "Yogi Berra's phrase, 'deja vu all over again,' best describes the current controversary surrounding the strategic arms reduction talks."
"Like Yogi Berra said, 'when you reach the crossroads, take it'" Rep. Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the other day in urging that the budget negotiations get rolling.
"'It's never over,' as Yogi Berra said, 'until it's over,'" a Republican congressman from Illinois observed as he promised to keep pusing for more federal funds for a project back in his district.
Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher, sending an aide to check on South Korean trade practices, reminded him of Berra's counsel: "You can observe a lot just by watching."
A Soviet affairs expert said almost anything could happen in the political upheavals there. "To quote Yogi Berra," said Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations, "'All predictions are dangerous, especially ones about the future.' He would have made a good Sovietologist."
The flag debate could have used some Yogi.