Feature

The Great American Birthday Party

By and From the October 1976 issue

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What kind of Bicentennial was it? Garish and understated, banal and uplifting, ridiculous and dignified, irrelevant and thoroughly appropriate. Americans celebrated in the strangest ways. In St. Louis, a pre-medical student stood on his head on the wings of a hi-plane. About 500 miles northeast of Bermuda, a man named Karl Thompson, trying to accomplish one of the last great un-achieved feats, a free balloon crossing of the Atlantic, had to leap from his craft, the Spirit of '76, and was rescued after four days in a liferaft by a Russian freighter. Across the country, flagpole sitters and businessmen tried to break world records. Entrepreneurs in Baltimore baked the world's largest cake, 69,000 pounds in all, but could only sell 20,000 of its estimated 400,000 slices. The Great American Flag Company in New York hoisted a stars and stripes on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that was three times the size of the largest flag reported by Guinness and watched in horror as the wind promptly ripped it in tatters. The media gave it their all. Channel 13, New York's public television station, re-broadcast all 13 episodes of "Flash Gordon: Space Soldier" from midnight July 3rd to four a.m., and Walter Cronkite stayed on the air until the following midnight with national coverage of everything from hymns to fireworks. Nearly everyone insisted on calling the day "America's 200th Birthday Party," thus assimilating the event to the cultural level of a 10-year-old. For all the foolishness, the spectacle gave as accurate an account as we are likely to get of the current state of the American spirit, and it was by no means something to be ashamed of.

Consider "Operation Sail." The most spectacular and dignified of the Bicentennial events, this endeavor brought sixteen large square-rigged sailing vessels, some two-thirds of the last operating "tall ships" in the world, to New York Harbor, along with some 200 smaller sloops, schooners, and the like. The public excitement rivalled the early days of Cape Canaveral. It didn't matter that windjammers had only a tenuous relation with the Declaration of Independence. It didn't even matter that all but one of the vessels were steel-hulled, twentieth-century ships. To the public and the press, the event was a once-in-a-lifetime evocation of wooden ships and iron men, of the days when New York Harbor was a forest of masts.

For the press, covering the story itself was a return to a simpler way of life. With one or two exceptions, reporters recognized that they weren't writing about Watergate. "We're all very cynical about this," said one reporter on board the training ship State of Maine, "but watching those ships is a hell of a lot of fun." Correspondents from the Village Voice discoursed learnedly on barks and brigantines. And the picture press, to say it bluntly, went bananas.

The ships made spectacular photographs, and writer-photographer teams were dispersed to every conceivable angle, while chartered sport fishing boats churned to sea to pick up film and copy from the press ships.

The intense coverage and lavish layouts even threatened to obscure the basic purpose of this maritime extravaganza. "You know," said one reporter, "the Times is probably going to run a correction on July 5 saying, 'We forgot to mention in yesterday's story on Operation Sail that Sunday was also the 200th anniversary of American independence.' " But the attention was not necessarily misdirected. To sail a tall ship requires old-fashioned virtues--courage, self-discipline, a sense of duty--and these received a better press that weekend than they have gotten in a long time.

The ships were no less salutary for the City of New York. Beforehand, officials warned of massive traffic jams and surging crowds; they cautioned spectators away from abandoned piers, for fear their weight would collapse the rotting structures. New Jersey police expected about 25 deaths from people falling off the Palisades; refrigerated trucks were ready to receive the bodies in case the traffic kept ambulances from getting through. But almost nothing happened. Saturday traffic was the lightest in memory, and on the big day, public transportation handled millions with remarkable dispatch. Accidents were limited to a capsized motorboat in the treacherous currents of Hell's Gate, in which one woman drowned, and the collision of a boat and a seaplane in the East River. But the successful carrying off of the event gave a very important boost to the city's battered morale.

So pleasantly surprised by this display of their own civility, New Yorkers showered gratitude on the visiting sailors. Hundreds of thousands lined lower Broadway on July 6, as the sailing ship crews and sailors from the 50 warships in the separate International Naval Review marched in the first ticker-tape parade in a decade. The military was once more in fashion. All the military. The crowds cheered the German eagle and the rising sun of Japan equally with the Polish hammer-and-sickle as the sailors marched past under their naval flags, and office workers showered them all with computer punch cards, shredded phone books, and, quite thoughtfully, torn-up copies of Penthouse. Manhattan was flooded with white uniforms, and columnists wrote nostalgically of World War II and the "New York, New York" of Dan Dailey and Frank Sinatra.

What had come over a city so often content to be thought of as hard, pushy, and cynical? How had it managed to bring together millions without a hint of disaster? For one thing, which the gloomiest of the bureaucrats had forgotten, a good portion of the crowd consisted of children, in the firm custody of their parents. The day was a family affair for middle Americans. In short, as several sociologists told Newsday, the crowd was composed of "squares." The squares, said Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, are taking over America.

For the squares, in fact, the Bicentennial Fourth was a cultural coup d'etat. The great mystery of the day for students of the mass media will always be the almost total disappearance of the non-squares, the hippies, freaks, feminists, and far-out Left. Whatever happened to the People's Bicentennial Commission? Jeremy Rifkin, its director, is still wondering. For five or more years, this radical, anti-Corporate outfit had built its propaganda around the revolutionary tradition to be celebrated on July 4, 1976. Its efforts were to culminate in a nine-hour, 250,000-strong rally in Washington, highlighting the signing of an "Economic Declaration of Independence." Preliminary gatherings at the anniversaries of Concord and the Boston Tea Party attracted considerable attention, to the point that groups like the Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, and Accuracy in Media devoted some energy to exposing the Commission's allegedly Marxist and anti-American background. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee called it "the attempt to steal the Bicentennial." But on the Fourth, it hardly seemed to have mattered.

Although some of the networks covered portions of the PBC's program, including a morning memorial service, Mr. Rifkin complains that television omitted all of the rally's many political speeches. He says that even the service, broadcast live for nearly half an hour, was never identified as a PBC event. And though he admits that the turn-put was much less than the Commission expected, he avers that the press estimates of 5,000 participants were ridiculously understated.

Other more radical events dropped totally out of sight. Did you know that an outfit called the Revolutionary Student Brigade claims to have attracted 25,000 to a "Rich Off Our Backs" rally in Philadelphia? That Puerto Ricans had a separate radical gathering and that feminists and homosexuals were making their own statements? No, well neither did the viewers of the CBS all-day special, who in the morning heard only that "handfuls" of demonstrators had gathered in Philadelphia, and in the evening were told that the number had actually exceeded 20,000.

CBS, in fine, was devoting the day to solid, bourgeois, middle America, and who are we to say they should not? But it was a revealing shift in programming. It was a vastly appealing and entirely recognizable portrait of America that Walter Cronkite presented that day, a country coming to peace with itself after a decade of torments, not smug, not satisfied, certainly not serene, but more self-confident than we have seen her for a while. Yet how much of this portrait was always there? If Walter Cronkite were to present a similar panorama in any summer of the late sixties, we would have seen, not only the hundreds of thousands of youths gathered at Woodstock to hear acid rock, but the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged parents gathered in Central Park to hear Tchaikovsky. The squares who gathered for Operation Sail were always there. The media just didn't look for them.

In the end it was a Bicentennial which paid surprisingly little attention to the meaning of the event it was supposed to commemorate. What references to history found their way into the speeches of politicians and businessmen were more often than not grotesquely misunderstood and twisted out of shape. Serious students of America could justly lament that a great moment had been missed for educating fellow citizens in the meaning of their country. But perhaps it was better that way. The day may have been an intellectual disappointment, but it was a great vulgar success. The people celebrated by behaving happily like Americans. And as for the theorists, well, there's always 1987. 

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About the Author

James Ring Adams is on the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Laurel Ann Adams is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.