The first time I obtained a passport was in 1983, when I was planning to visit Scotland, the homeland of my ancestors. It was plain little booklet with a navy blue cover, impressed with an eagle-and-shield emblem in gold, and the words "United States of America."
The inside front cover contained identifying data, a long string of cryptic numbers and a mug shot of me that evoked the old joke: "If you look like your passport photo, you're not well enough to travel."
There followed a couple of pages of terse instructions and rules about customs, immunizations, visas, embassy contacts and so on, and a place to write name and address of next-of-kin. All the rest of the pages were blank spaces where visa entries would be stamped when you arrived at and left foreign countries. These pages were faintly underlaid with a pattern of Liberty Bells and red-white-and-blue shields, barely visible.
Very neat, compact, well-made, understated, easy to fit into a small, secure pocket. But it had a feel to it, beyond the booklet itself, a kind of potent little unspoken statement that the "bearer is one of America's people; we expect him to behave, and we expect you to treat him decently while he's in your country." Being a veteran and a taxpayer, I felt that the passport and I were made for each other.
"Every page of the new U.S. passport looks like the cover design for an approved textbook on American history, the one you open up after pledging allegiance to the flag."
I had to get a replacement passport again, last year, because I was getting ready to go to Canada to participate in a public event. I had been to Canada often before without needing a passport, but things had changed, as of 9/11, and I was now a citizen of a country that was, despite being the only superpower nation in the world, scared sh**less.
My new passport looks almost like my old one, except that the cover looks black instead of blue, but then you open up, and ...
Ta ra ta ra ta raaaa! It's like a blare of trumpets from Sousa's own band! Seventy-six trombones! By jingo! Rat a tat tat, the bearer of this passport is a by-God Yank, and he'd better not forget it while he's touring around in your crappy little country for whatever reason.
Every page of the new U.S. passport looks like the cover design for an approved textbook on American history, the one you open up after pledging allegiance to the flag.
There's the famous engraving of Francis Scott Key standing at the gunwale, watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry, while the inkling of the Star-Spangled Banner forms in his handsome head. Facing that page is Abraham Lincoln's conclusion to the Gettysburg address set off with flowing red-and-white flag stripes. Next, facing my mug shot, looms the fierce-eyed American bald eagle, backed up by a sea of grain and the star field of the American flag, all in full color, and the preamble to the Constitution (you know, that thing George W. Bush dismissed as "just a piece of paper") in calligraphy and italics.
The 20 visa-stamp pages following are anything but blank pages; they're a picture gallery of patriotic American icons gorgeously engraved -- Independence Hall; Old Ironsides under full sail; more bald eagles and American bison, with purple mountain majesties behind them; a centerfold spread of Mount Rushmore; steamboats; sodbuster plowing with oxen; cowboys driving longhorns; steam locomotive in the mountains; a grizzly catching salmon near a totem pole; the Statue of Liberty -- everything needed to make an American patriot homesick while he's away, and every page headlined with some famous, stirring quotation by presidents from Washington to Kennedy, or words excerpted from the Declaration of Independence -- an orgasm of patriotic symbolism.
"The bearer of this passport is a by-God Yank, and he'd better not forget it."
Why is my new passport a propaganda packet? Is it to create "shock and awe" in some foreign border guard? Or to convince me while I'm abroad that the USA is still the republic I grew up loving, instead of the aggressive, oligarchic, corporatist pseudodemocracy it has become since 2001?
I will say this: Unlike my first passport, this one is not a pleasure to have and to hold. This is like the lady in Hamlet who doth protest too much. I don't want to go abroad carrying a chauvinistic passport printed by a rogue government that much of the world has come to fear and hate. This document is a self-conscious sign of nation inflation.
I'd rather have a plain passport and a glorious country, as I did have a quarter century ago.
James Alexander Thom can be reached through .