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An Anxious Fourth

<i> Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics."</i>

What people in this country have felt while celebrating the Fourth of July is a subject that sometimes has fireworks of its own.

Over the years, celebration of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence has been a kind of litmus test of how Americans felt about the country. This year, it’s not quite clear, or maybe there are just too many ambiguities.

The usual trivial pursuits were in place. The television networks dropped in on a few fireworks spectaculars. Pundits felt themselves stirred. Bristol, R.I., site of the first Fourth of July parade in 1785, followed its usual red, white and blue stripe down Main Street. New England ice-cream vendors were selling triple-dip cones: strawberry, vanilla and blueberry.

Is the point that some major national news organization should go behind the headlines--China emergent, Monica S. Lewinsky possibly so, the stock-market nervous--to search out and distill public feeling in the shadow of this year’s rockets’ red glare? Yes, exactly. The resulting national Rorschach could be a revealing one.

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The 1785 drumbeating in Bristol notwithstanding, it was not until the 1820s, according to historians, that Fourth of July celebrations became a distinctive American occasion and tradition. Only at that time did the nation start to have a sense that the founding fathers were passing into history, and commemoration was in order.

This was largely triggered when two of the first presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both died on the same Fourth of July in 1826. This unique spotlight was further enlarged when the fifth president, James Monroe, died on the Fourth of July in 1831. Some contemporary newspapers even speculated on a divine scheme of coincidence. But the holiday’s importance was established.

Even so, by the 1840s and 1850s, some Americans were starting to see the Declaration of Independence, and the War of Independence itself, as tainted. According to Cornell University historian Michael Kammen, a student of the Fourth of July phenomenon, some Southerners, already sliding toward what would be secession and rebellion in 1861, declined to celebrate Independence Day.

These sour-grape vendors believed that the North and West were denying the South the liberties that Southerners had fought for in 1776. Some free blacks, in turn, also declined to participate in Fourth of July ceremonies because their own lack of real freedom made them regard the occasion as a sham. In the years after the Civil War, many angry white Southerners rejected Fourth of July festivities, until the Centennial in 1876 restored a modicum of good will.

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It’s not apparent that any group is similarly skeptical today, but that’s why a Fourth of July mood survey might be a good idea. Maybe we’re missing something.

This century, of course, we’ve seen the Fourth of July elevated by wartime patriotism--in World Wars I and II--and then undercut by cynicism in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Indeed, the Bicentennial of 1976 is generally regarded as having been undercut by its proximity to Watergate. The tall ships in New York harbor were offset by the jail sentences in Washington.

This particular caution could be relevant again today. Scandals tend to weaken national optimism. President Bill Clinton has lost as many aides and Cabinet officers to disrepute as President Richard M. Nixon did. A recent national poll showed that though only about 35% of Americans disapproved of the president’s performance in office, fully 54% were negative about his truthfulness or believability.

It’s unusual for a president to have his job ratings run so far ahead of his moral ratings, but that’s part of the larger ambiguity in U.S. politics and public opinion. Some 65% to 70% of Americans believe the economy is in good shape, but a smaller majority believe that national morality is in trouble. The budget deficit may be, for now, a thing of the past, but the moral deficit is large and growing. In a sense, Clinton personifies these ambiguities.

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Even public pleasure over the drawn-out economic recovery has its caveats. Many people still believe their children will not fare as well as they have, and the vulnerability of so many Asian economies has seeded its own doubt about the future of the global business cycle.

The world itself seems to be coming unglued. The Bush-era dream of a new world order, and of the ludicrous “end of history” because the West won the Cold War, keeps coming up against the crisis of Russia, the possible depression in Japan, the threat of some nuclear donnybrook between India and Pakistan, the conceivable collapse of the world’s biggest Muslim nation (Indonesia) and the bailout needed by the world’s 11th-biggest economy (South Korea). For all that Americans tend not to pay much attention to foreign policy, there are more than enough potential implosions here for Saturday celebrators to have gone light on the sparklers.

The list of names of those running for president in 2000 has its own chastening effect: Vice President Albert Gore, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, to name a few. These are mostly toadstools waiting for the lawn mower of history.

But that is not comforting in itself. Ambiguous eras generate second-rate politicians--the pre-Civil War United States in the 1850s, for example, or troubled and fading Britain between the world wars--and it takes the crisis finally arriving to produce an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill.

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In the meantime, for most Americans it will be a relatively prosperous summer. So why worry too much about national and international circumstances that could go wrong but as yet haven’t? If that puts a small damper on Fourth of July zealotry, on patriotic cymbals and trumpets, it doesn’t put any damper on the side of the Fourth that is largely consumerism: fireworks displays, picnics and parties. Why should it?

Still, maybe some foundation or news organization can take a look at the Fourth of July celebrations across the United States in the mid-1990s, in general, and 1998, in particular, and tell us where we are today.

I say this because of a reluctance to go beyond a theory of the more-or-less satisfied blahs. In 1994, some pundits, myself included, took a time-for-another-political-revolution approach, based on the dissatisfaction that so many American were voicing with Washington. That “revolution,” the Republican takeover of Congress, turned out to be more interest-group and fat-cat politics-as-usual. As a result, people have reason to be doubtful of any solution.

In the summer of 1994, after Fourth of July celebrations had cooled for some weeks, Time magazine did a poll on what people thought about our leaders and the nation’s capital. In one question, respondents were asked: Would George Washington be proud or ashamed of the city that bears his name? Eighty-six percent said “ashamed,” just 9% said “proud.” Sure, the numbers would be a bit cheerier now, because of the stock-market boom and public satisfaction with the economy. But it is hard to believe they would be too different. Which brings us back to the fundamental problem.

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Ten or 20 years from now, somebody will write another book on the Fourth of July in U.S. politics and culture, updating it for the millennial years. It may not be a Rorschach to look forward to.


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