Picking on Patriotic Passports

Neil MacFarquhar finds a new passport design 'rife' with patriotic imagery.

The arrival of his redesigned new passport causes reporter Neil MacFarquhar to temporarily abandon his usual Muslims-in-America beat to pen "Stars and Stripes, Wrapped In the Same Old Blue" for the Sunday Week in Review section.

As a reporter, MacFarquhar is not very fond of America's current role in the world, and his piece gathered criticism of both the passport design and America itself.

MacFarquhar huffed: "When I went to collect my newly minted American passport, I discovered that it came with a radically altered design that included sheaves of wheat, the rather large head of a bald eagle plus the flag wrapped around my picture. And that was just one page.

"But the design overhaul wasn't much noticed by people emerging from what they called the purgatory-length waits to obtain their new passports."

MacFarquhar managed to get a full story out of the change nevertheless.

"The new passport comes with its own name: 'American Icon.' It's hard to think of one that was left out.

"The inside cover sports an engraving of the battle scene that inspired 'The Star Spangled Banner.' A couple of lines of the anthem, starting with, 'O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,' are scrawled in what the State Department says is Francis Scott Key's own cursive.

"The short, 28-page version of the passport comes with 13 inspirational quotes, including six from United States presidents and one from a Mohawk Thanksgiving speech. The pages, done in a pink-grey-blue palate, are rife with portraits of Americana ranging from a clipper ship to Mount Rushmore to a long-horn cattle drive."

Isn't MacFarquhar making just a little too much of the redesign?

"Professional designers shown the passport to critique mentioned art as well.

Next come the critics, whose valid points about the appeal of blank pages are balanced by liberal criticism.

"'It is like being given a coloring book that your brother already colored in,' said Michael Bierut, of the design firm Pentagram in New York City. A passport, not unlike a scrapbook, gets its allure from gradually accruing exotic stamps, with the blank pages holding the promise of future adventure, he and other designers said. But they find that the new jumble of pictures detracts from that.

"'There is also something a little coercive about a functional object serving as a civics lesson, even a fairly low-grade civics lesson,' Mr. Bierut said.

"New passport bearers in San Francisco seemed divided.

"'It's very patriotic,' said Cynthia Yacur of Folsom, Calif., relieved to receive one just days before leaving for Greece. 'Cool pictures. An eagle. A bison. Nice. Every page is different. I like it.'

"Another Californian, Candace Serona, was less convinced.

"'It seems to represent an idealized version of a country that is far from ideal right now,' she said, adding that the most positive thing was that at least the images embedded over her photograph hid some wrinkles."

Then again, it's not hard to find critics of America in San Francisco.