As armies of pundits and fact-checkers inspected every phrase and shrug of Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama in Wednesday's debate, we got this message from a high-level foreign affairs specialist:
"What is that black spot on Romney's pin? It's driving me crazy!"
The dot on Romney's oversize American flag pin is the Secret Service star logo imposed over the stripes, a custom version created for agents and fans. The pin - for decorative purposes only, not security clearance - was a gift to Romney from his protective detail, but it's also sold at the Secret Service store in Washington and traded by staffers, just like Olympic pins.
Call us shallow, but we seem to spend waaay too much time checking out politicians' lapels. Not since Madeleine Albright have chest pins been such a big deal - why, now it's almost politically incorrect for any candidate to show up with a naked suit, as Obama found out in 2007, when the presidential candidate was called out by a reporter for not sporting the flag.
"My attitude is that I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart," he told a campaign crowd in Iowa. But the pin came back - and stayed.
The tradition only goes back about 40 years, when Richard Nixon started wearing a flag lapel pin regularly. Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote that the president, besieged by antiwar protests, got the idea from his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman - who picked it up (we are not making this up) from Robert Redford's 1972 film "The Candidate." The lapel pin started as a Republican gesture; after Sept. 11, politicians from both parties donned the pins as symbols of patriotism and solidarity.
Today, a simple American flag is just the beginning. The new trend is to customize: Romney has worn the Secret Service lapel pin (Paul Ryan wears what looks like a variant) and occasionally a flag with a GOP elephant. During the Republican debates, Newt Gingrich wore a pin of the flag that George Washington used in the Revolutionary War. So far, the president and Vice President Joe Biden are sticking to the classic American flag pin.
Not everyone liked Romney's flag pin: Esquire's Kurt Sollerhad no problem with the Secret Service logo but thought it was too big: "Wearing a larger pin - which, in itself, is a piece of jewelry, though probably a pretty cheap one - just served, for me at least, to underline the wealth that's come from all his business success. It's a weird show of machismo."
Hey, everybody's a critic.