An Embarrassingly Patriotic Passport

new passport design travel.state.gov

This column was written by Michael Currie Schaffer.

The federal government's recent efforts in the field of passport regulations have been somewhat less than wildly popular. First, new travel rules for travelers flying to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean prompted a run on the passport office: With the bureaucracy overwhelmed, furious would-be travelers saw their vacation dates come and go with no document in sight. Then, no sooner had the feds made a dent in the backlog than the next passport-change appeared on the horizon: As of January, Americans will have to show their passports at land crossings, too. Borderland backups caused by a dress-rehearsal for the new rules made the front page of the New York Times last week.

So, complaining about something so superficial as the way the passport looks might seem a little like kicking the poor schlubs in the consular service when they're down. Unfortunately, the newly redesigned U.S. passport -- that document so many folks have waited in Soviet-length lines to acquire, and which they'll no doubt thumb through as they wait in even longer queues at our borders next year -- is tacky enough to make you want to do just that. Apparently, someone forgot that passports are mainly meant to be read by, you know, foreigners. Plastered like a NASCAR vehicle with cheeseball patriotic clip-art that might have been swiped from The Colbert Report's opening credits, the new books spill jingoism the way traveling Americans once spilled hard currency.

Fair enough, given the administration that introduced the new passports. Unfortunately, where the Bushies once excelled at logos and backdrops, the redesign is also hideously, hideously ugly. Don't take my word for it -- flip through the new book at the state department's Web site.

The result of a six-year effort, the new passport's main advantage is that it is embedded with a computer chip and other high-tech security features. The front cover looks the same as before, except for a small emblem of a circle and two lines, the symbol for documents that contain electronic data.

The problems only start once you open your passport. On the inside front cover is a Fort McHenry illustration accompanied by the last four lines of the "Star Spangled Banner," apparently in Francis Scott Key's handwriting. Why is this quotation in actual handwriting? It's unclear. Other than an inexplicably capitalized passage from the Gettysburg Address that I fear will make overseas consular officers feel as if Lincoln is shouting at them, the thirteen other inspirational quotes in the book are all printed in the same sober Times Roman-style font.

Except, of course, for the text on the page opposite the passport-holder's photo and personal information. That page contains the preamble to the constitution, complete with "We the People" in its original 18th-century typeface. It's hard to say what foreign passport-stampers are supposed to make of a preamble to a document that isn't, in fact, contained in this particular little blue book. But perhaps they'll just focus on the page's graphic elements: A fierce-looking bald eagle that takes up half the page, accompanied by smaller illustrations of grain and a flapping American flag.

The passport's subsequent pages -- the ones that are supposed to be used for foreign visas and entry stamps -- follow along with illustrations as predictable as a junior-high American-history project. Cacti! Mountains! Independence Hall! A gargantuan rendering of the Liberty Bell! The whole romantic panoply, from coast to coast. Literally: There's a New England schooner sailing through pages ten and eleven, a Mississippi paddleboat floating towards the edge of page 17, and some sort of Pacific Northwest image involving a salmon-eating bear and a totem pole on pages 24 and 25. I suppose it goes without saying that the pages in between feature cowboys, bison, a train, and the Statue of Liberty.

Crass it may be, but the new passport won't be accused of taking sides in domestic politics. The figures offering quotes about what the State Department calls "the hope and success that is the United States of America" include John F. Kennedy and LBJ as well as Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Many of the passages extol the virtues of democracy -- great stuff, although, alas, material that these days is liable to be interpreted abroad as stage one in some secret American invasion scheme.

Still, at least one of the passages -- a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote asking that "God grant that America will be true to her dream" -- implies that Americans are aware of at least a few imperfections. Of course, there's nothing imperfect about the illustration abutting the King quotation: A mountain range, a pair of buffalo, and yet another enormous eagle staring proudly into the distance. What that western idyll has to do with the man who orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycott is anyone's guess. But whatever dissonance it all creates will only be heightened once the pages start getting filled in with visas and passport stamps from Finland or Botswana.

If the passport's designers have taken care not to slight any particular party, ethnicity, or painter of corny American vistas, there are at least some changes you could interpret as signs of Cheneyite muscle-flexing. For instance, in the passport that was used until last year, the standard passage on page one featuring a request from the Secretary of State to treat the passport-holder well was printed in French and Spanish as well as English. It still is, though the foreign languages have now been shrunk to a typeface distinctly smaller than the English text. That'll show 'em!

One of the most jarring statistics from the 2004 election had to do with passports. According to one Zogby poll, John Kerry led among passport-holders by 23 points, while President Bush held a sizeable lead among those without passports. No doubt the new travel rules will go some of the way toward changing that as they broaden the passports-toting population. But maybe the new-look passport, shouting its Yankee pride like an American flag on a fanny pack, will help, too. The cover may say United States, but the design taste is pure red states.
By Michael Currie Schaffer
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