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.
It was billed as an investigation of the investigators. On May 10,1999, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) held a one-day hearing with witnesses offering damaging testimony about the Federal Bureau of Investigation's role in the TWA 800 probe. Grassley's opening remarks were particularly critical of former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom for failing to uncover the cause of the explosion that killed the jumbo jet's 230 passengers and crew on July 17, 1996.
Grassley's hearing focused on two star witnesses. One was Andrew Vita, assistant director of field operations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). The second was William A. Tobin, former chief metallurgist for the FBI. Both supported Grassley's claim that Kallstrom needlessly prolonged the probe.
September 29 was a beautiful day at Lowes Island country club in Sterling, Virginia. The sky was sunny, there was a pleasant breeze, and the golf course's immaculate fairways hadn't suffered too much from the steady rain of the previous twenty-four hours. It was a big day at Lowes Island; the club was hosting the second annual Ronald H. Brown Memorial Golf Tournament. Several government officials came to play, as did lots of corporate bigwigs —and to top it off, Bill Clinton himself had agreed to show up for eighteen holes in the afternoon.
The president seemed in good spirits as he walked to the first tee. Sporting a bright red Stanford University cap in honor of his daughter's recent college choice, he kept a running conversation with playing partners Michael Brown, son of the late Ron Brown, and William Daley, the man who succeeded Brown as secretary of commerce. As usual, the press was not allowed to follow the president beyond the first hole, but it appeared that everyone enjoyed the round. And Clinton's presence no doubt helped raise a lot of money for the tournament's beneficiary, the Ronald H. Brown Memorial Foundation.
In hearings last September, senators lashed out at the Internal Revenue Service, IRS agents testified anonymously behind screens, and TV cameras recorded the plight of citizens cruelly abused by the agency. People who take Congress seriously might have thought that the IRS was on the verge of extinction—or at least that the agency had finally gotten the message that it had no license to tyrannize the American people.
What has happened to the IRS since those heavily hyped hearings?
• The IRS made it much easier for informants to share in the money collected from people they accuse. Such payments were already on the upswing, doubling between 1995 and 1996, according to the Wall Street Journal. Informants will now collect 15 percent of the windfall, instead of 10 percent.
Although the press has by now expended far more verbiage on Watergate than on the Kennedy assassination, the psychic shock to the Republic so far has not been comparable. While the response to Watergate has been serious, the public is taking it in stride, perhaps because politicians are expected to act nefariously. The assassination was different: regicide committed by rifle savaged the American soul far more than regicide committed by news coverage, and thus the public concern about Watergate assumes a lower profile than the press coverage would indicate. If impeachment proceedings are inaugurated against the President, that may change. (The Democrats, seeking to maximize the damage but avoid a constitutional crisis, have two options: censure, or initiating an impeachment debate in the House, and then arranging a close — but failing — vote.)