The announcement by Walt Disney Co. that it will build a history theme park outside Washington, D.C., does not tell the whole story. Disney's America, as it's being called, is positioned to seize, update and eventually replace the patriotic symbols that Washington has allowed to tarnish. We have seen the future and it has bigger ears than Ross Perot.
Some Third World nations faced with embarrassing, dangerous capitals have simply moved them. But corporate America, bolstered by 21st-Century technology, has something slightly more subtle in mind for our capital.
First, create a parallel capital 30 miles from the old one. But make this capital cleaner and safer than the District of Columbia. Update L'Enfant. Transfer and modernize the historical myths, the nationalist rituals, the public institutions that Americans love in the abstract and are appalled to see brought low on the nightly news. Keep the unsightly bureaucratic parts where they are. Re-create the interactive, what's-right-with-America, photogenic stuff in a more user-friendly setting: a virtual-reality Brasilia.
(We can see the same streamlining impulse at work in Universal Studios' City Walk: clean street, no cars, entertaining architecture; no homeless people or muggings to dilute the shopping experience.)
The logical extensions of the Disney's America future are not difficult to imagine. Word-of-mouth chatter will reinforce Disney as the viable and entertaining alternative for tourists. Increasingly, the annual conventions representing the special-interest groups that are the lifeblood of any capital will be attracted by aggressive marketing to "D.A." The lobbyists will follow their clients.
Soon the national government, which seldom takes second place to anyone in its detachment from the District, begins little by little to withdraw. Someone suggests that the next memorial be built where the tourists are. A few committee hearings are held in D.A. Then maybe a Cabinet officer's swearing-in, a session of the House. Then, why not the State of the Union?
The rivalry of competing Fourth of July fireworks displays will inevitably be resolved in favor of Disney's greater experience with reusable explosives and some future budget cutback in the Department of Interior. No problem of seasonality with the Cherry Blossom festival. Disney's flowers bloom all year 'round. Other government functions will happily migrate.
And why not? Who better than Disney to create the mythic spiritual center that most patriotic Americans want to visit. Who is a more secure guardian of the American Dream? Let the magic of the marketplace of the 21st Century work its wonders.
This does not mean that there is no place for Washington. Disney is unlikely to want the messy daily tasks of government. The Department of Energy, the Government Printing Office and the Federal Trade Commission, among others, are safe where they stand. Although they are likely to scatter to the states as technology makes central locations unnecessary and local political bases divide the spoils of bureaucratic jobs among regional power centers.
But the future location of the mythic trappings of American patriotism that our countrymen and women find both believable and reassuring lies in D.A. From its spotless floors to its modern security systems, Disney will earn a legitimacy among the populace that Washington has already lost.
Could Congress charge $30 admission and hope to get anyone but paid lobbyists in its gallery? The same electorate that hates taxes will pay for admission to D.A. Perhaps that's the wave of the future. Charge admission for all of those government services now taken for granted--visits to officials, use of government facilities, voting. But that's an idea for the Disney folks to wrestle with when they take over.