There was another sad Fourth of July, and the byline here is April 7, 1983:
A ban on apple pie couldn’t have brought a stronger reaction than Interior Secretary James Watt’s decision, revealed yesterday, to ban “rock bands” like the Beach Boys and the Grass Roots from this year’s Fourth of July celebration on the Mall.
That was a bad move:
The Beach Boys issued a statement. The vice president of the United States issued a statement, and the president’s deputy chief of staff felt compelled to comment. The pro-marijuana lobby threatened to sue. A radio announcer called Watt a “nerd.” A Watt spokesman hastened to call the Beach Boys “solid, middle-class family people.”
The Beach Boys held Fourth of July concerts on the Mall attended by hundreds of thousands in 1980 and 1981, and the Grass Roots did the same in 1982.
Watt himself didn’t care:
Watt had said in an interview he made the decision in order to keep what he called “the wrong element” – drinking, drug-taking youths – from attending the celebration. Instead, he arranged for “patriotic, family-based entertainment” to be provided by the U.S. Army Blues Band and Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton.
Watt, as Interior secretary, controls the National Park Service, which runs the celebrations on the Mall.
So it would be the white military men in dress uniforms covering black songs of anguish and joy and the safely effeminate high-voiced Wayne Newton covering Sinatra songs, with all the implied danger and sexiness removed. What could go wrong?
That would be this:
Vice President George Bush said yesterday of the Beach Boys: “They’re my friends and I like their music.” The Beach Boys held a fund-raising concert for Bush when he ran for president, and then played for the Reagan-Bush administration’s youth inaugural ball in January 1981.
Watt spokesman Doug Baldwin said yesterday Watt has nothing against the Beach Boys and did not realize he was taking them on directly when, in an interview with The Washington Post, he criticized “rock bands attracting the wrong element in the last two years” performing on the Mall during the Fourth of July celebrations.
The Department of the Interior was flooded with complaint calls, and on April 7, two days after Watt had announced his ban, President Reagan reversed it, but by then the Beach Boys had another booking for the Fourth of July. After what Watt did everyone wanted to book them, and money was no object. They did fine that year but Reagan made up for the misunderstanding. He invited them to play at the White House on June 13 at an event marking the fifteenth anniversary of the Special Olympics. They were fine young men. Reagan was from California. They were too. And that was that. You don’t try to score political points on the Fourth of July.
And the footnote:
A controversy erupted after a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in September 1983, when Watt mocked affirmative action with his description of a department coal leasing panel: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
Within three weeks of making this statement, on October 9, 1983, he announced his resignation at deputy undersecretary Thomas J. Barrack’s ranch, near President Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo.
Rancho del Cielo is out here in the hills north of Simi Valley, now the site of the Reagan Library and pure California. Malibu is just to the west. They have surfers there, and California Girls. California is where Watt simply had to resign. And then the saddest Fourth of July was finally over, the one without the Beach Boys, but this year’s was even sadder.
Once again, the issue was scoring political points:
Americans gathered in Washington on Thursday as one nation, feeling a little divisible, struggling to maintain unity on the Fourth of July, a summer ritual that normally brings a day-long pause to partisan hostilities. But that was before President Trump updated the day with his unique stamp – speaking of “one people chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny” from a Lincoln Memorial flanked by armored vehicles, with military jets passing overhead – his presence thrilling supporters, angering opponents and creating near-parallel celebrations of the country’s 243rd birthday.
On a sweltering, storm-tossed day, crowds were pulled in opposite directions on a polarized Mall, with “Make America Great Again” caps bedecking the throngs near the Lincoln Memorial and Baby Trump balloons bobbing in protest amid the masses gathered near the U.S. Capitol. Each side even had its own fireworks show largely invisible to the other, along with plenty of rhetorical firecrackers being tossed where the two sides mixed.
No one was happy. The holiday was ruined, but it rained enough that the crowds were small, and President Trump was more incoherent than divisive, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump explains here:
President Trump paused in his Fourth of July speech several times on Thursday to accommodate military aircraft flying overhead. After several passed over late in the program, Trump again began speaking from his lectern behind protective, rain-spattered glass in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
“In June of 1775,” he said, reading from a teleprompter, “the Continental Congress created a unified army out of the revolutionary forces encamped around Boston and New York and named after the great George Washington, commander in chief.”
“The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge,” he continued, “found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our army manned the [unclear]. It rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do. And at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”
What? Bump saw only this:
At some point in this patter, Trump transitioned from discussing the Revolutionary War (the Continental Army) to the War of 1812 (Fort McHenry), but the transition isn’t clear. It was part of a sort of highlight reel of American military conflicts, with Trump going on to discuss the Civil War and then World War I.
None of it made much sense, and one thing did cause a stir:
The reason we and many others are considering this part of his speech, though, is that line about airports. There were no airports. There were hot-air balloons used in the Civil War (and in conflicts as early as the 1790s in France), but there were no aircraft deployed in the Revolutionary War – much less dedicated landing facilities needing to be secured with musket fire.
A lot of people are misidentifying the problem, though. It’s not the case that Trump wrote this speech and deliberately included a line about the famous Battle of Washington National. Instead, he was reading a prepared speech, stumbled repeatedly over what he was reading – and refused to acknowledge or correct those mistakes.
And there were a lot of mistakes:
Instead of saying that the Continental Congress named George Washington commander in chief, which it did, Trump said for some reason that they named it after him, which they didn’t. He said that the winter “of” Valley Forge, not “at” Valley Forge, was difficult. Trump claimed that British Gen. Charles Cornwallis of Yorktown had victory snatched away from him instead of saying that Cornwallis lost at Yorktown. He said that the army manned… something, instead of presumably saying that American forces manned the ramparts at Fort McHenry. The fort’s ramparts are part of the national anthem, which Trump then alluded to twice more.
Where the “airports” line came from is admittedly unclear. Perhaps there was a mention of ports?
Trump later said the rain had shorted out his teleprompter and he was working from memory, which was supposed to be reassuring. It wasn’t, but Slate’s Josh Keating was reassured:
Credit where it’s due: The president did not go full authoritarian on the National Mall on Thursday.
At his “Salute to America” event, Donald Trump did not reference his reelection campaign; condemn undocumented immigrants; describe journalists as enemies of the people; or attack Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Bette Midler while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some of the world’s deadliest military hardware. Yes, this is a low standard, but the president has not always shown the same level of restraint in military settings.
But he did pull it off this time:
Except for a few brief mentions of border security and the defeat of ISIS, there was almost no discussion of current events, debates, or controversies. The first half of the speech – delivered through a drizzle – though not the downpour that organizers feared and critics hoped would wash out the event, was fairly tame, patriotic boilerplate. It consisted mostly of Trump ticking off references to relatively uncontroversial people and events from “one of the greatest stories ever told – the story of America.”
The Revolutionary War, Lewis and Clark, rock ‘n’ roll, the Wright brothers, and the Super Bowl all got name-checked. (In what may or may not have been an intentional call back to one of his more bizarre utterances, Trump added some particular emphasis when saluting “Frederick Douglass, the great Frederick Douglass.”) There were State of the Union–style callouts to distinguished guests, including Apollo 11 mission controller Gene Kranz and civil rights movement veteran and conservative activist Clarence Henderson.
So that which might have been a disaster turned into something else:
One can ask why the president should participate at all in what has traditionally been a nonpolitical celebration at the National Mall and raise concerns about the conflation of national greatness with military might. After all, the point at which a country’s leader starts freely using state and military resources to fight his political opponents is often considered a tipping point in democratic collapse. But in truth, the speech itself was fairly innocuous as Trump speeches go.
In short, Trump was a good little boy this time, sort of, or maybe not:
News that Trump’s Republican allies had been given VIP passes made it pretty clear that this was a political event, no matter what the White House said. (The sheer quantity of MAGA hats on the streets of Washington this weekend was evidence that Trump’s supporters saw it that way.) But because the speech was less of a Trump campaign event than many expected, it’s not clear Trump violated the law by using taxpayer money to fund it. There is, however, still room for scrutiny of why millions of dollars collected from National Park entrance fees were diverted to a non-Park Service event organized by the president, not to mention the military resources involved.
Keating raises real questions there, and then adds this:
All in all, it was a strange day in the nation’s capital with sideshows including a flag burning in front of the White House and the arrival of the famous Trump baby blimp. Barricades kept supporters who had not paid for tickets off the mall, and we already seem primed for another crowd size controversy. Trump will probably not be pleased with how the event looked on television, as he spoke through rain streaked bulletproof glass.
And he proved nothing at all:
Trump closed his speech on a note of unity, describing Americans as “one people chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny.” But the event, which will likely be viewed by half the country as a patriotic tribute to men and women in uniform, and the other half as a corrupt, quasi-fascistic boondoggle, only highlighted yet again that as a people, we are anything but one.
And that made this the saddest Fourth of July since Wayne Newton sang and the Beach Boys didn’t. Don’t try to score political points on the Fourth of July, as Eugene Robinson notes here:
In 1970, at the height of unrest over the Vietnam War, Independence Day was turned into something called “Honor America Day” – an extravaganza staged, like Trump’s, at the Lincoln Memorial. President Richard M. Nixon videotaped a speech to be played at the event; even he had the good sense not to attend in person, instead decamping to his home in California.
That event, billed as apolitical and nonpartisan, turned out to be anything but. Evangelist Billy Graham led off by blasting opponents of the war as “a relatively small extremist element.” Raucous, drum-beating protesters came out in force; some of them overturned a Good Humor truck, prompting riot police to move in. A few neo-Nazis showed up for good measure. The smell of tear gas hung in the air. Before going onstage, the program’s host, comedian Bob Hope, reportedly surveyed the scene and quipped: “It looks like Vietnam, doesn’t it?”
Actually, it looked like an America that didn’t care to be told how to think about Independence Day.
But that’s only true of two-thirds of America. The other third of America, Trump’s base, seemed to have liked what they were being told, and the next day, as the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report, Trump had quickly shed his Fourth of July persona and returned to his core beliefs, that everything is Obama’s fault:
It took all of one minute and nine seconds for President Trump to go after his predecessor on Friday – just one minute and nine seconds to re-engage in a debate that has consumed much of his own time in office over who was the better president.
It was former President Barack Obama who started the policy of separating children from their parents at the border, Mr. Trump claimed falsely, and it was Mr. Obama who had such a terrible relationship with North Korea that he was about to go to war. Mr. Obama had it easy on the economy, Mr. Trump added, but let America’s allies walk all over him.
The litany of criticisms, often distorted, is familiar, but Mr. Trump has turned increasingly to Mr. Obama in recent days as a political foil.
In short, the holiday had been a holiday and it was back to work, because Obama’s shadow is out there now:
In part, that reflects Mr. Trump’s longstanding fixation with the former president. But it may also stem from the fact that Mr. Obama’s vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., remains the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 election.
“If you look at what we’ve done, and if you look at what we’ve straightened out, the – I call it the ‘Obama-Biden mess,'” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving Washington for a weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “We’re straightening it out.”
How, by getting rid of Obamacare? That didn’t get straightened out. Nothing did, but Obama is the enemy again, or forever:
The president’s focus on Mr. Obama after about two and a half years in office was even more intense during a trip to Japan and South Korea last weekend, when Mr. Trump repeatedly raised the subject of his predecessor without being asked, assailing him on a variety of domestic and foreign policy fronts.
“When in a corner, Trump falls back on the only organizing principle he has, which is attacking Obama – and usually lying about it,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “I wouldn’t read anything more into it than that.”
And this has been going on a long time:
Since 2011, when he determined to minimize or unravel Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, and lately has even suggested that his predecessor was behind a deep-state conspiracy with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to thwart his 2016 candidacy.
This is either boredom or delusion, or perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but this will have to do for now:
Mr. Obama was viewed favorably by 63 percent of those surveyed by Gallup last year, while Mr. Trump’s job approval rating is 41 percent.
But Mr. Trump recognizes that his political base wanted, and still wants, someone who would be seen as fighting against Mr. Obama. Especially as Mr. Biden stumps the country on his record in the Obama administration, Mr. Trump sees a political advantage in taking down his predecessor and trying to lift himself as an outsider taking on a system he has led for over two years.
“Tell Biden that NATO has taken total advantage of him and President Obama,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “Biden didn’t know what the hell he was doing and neither did President Obama. NATO was taking advantage of – now they’re paying.”
“President Obama and Vice President Biden,” he added, “they didn’t have a clue. They got taken advantage of by China, by NATO, by every country they did business with.”
And now Trump will humiliate them all to fix that, but actually it’s all nonsense:
By Mr. Trump’s indictment, Mr. Obama was too soft on China’s trade abuses and too easy on NATO allies who were not spending enough on their own defense, two issues that the current president has pressed much more vigorously. Mr. Trump in recent days has also blamed Mr. Obama for a dispute with Turkey, a NATO ally, over its purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia. A former Obama aide denied that he refused to sell a Patriot system to Turkey but did object to a technology transfer Ankara demanded as part of a deal.
In leveling his criticisms at Mr. Obama, however, Mr. Trump routinely stretches the facts. As he has repeatedly, Mr. Trump insisted on Friday that had Mr. Obama remained in office, he would have gone to war with North Korea, a claim dismissed as ludicrous by the former president’s advisers.
But wait, there’s more:
In recent days, Mr. Trump has added a new claim – that Mr. Obama tried to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, only to be rebuffed, an assertion for which he offered no evidence.
“He called Kim Jong-un on numerous occasions to meet. President Obama wanted to meet with Kim Jong-un. And Kim Jong-un said no,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “Numerous occasions he called. And right now we have a very nice relationship.”
After Mr. Trump floated this while in Asia last weekend, Mr. Obama’s final national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, used an expletive to deny it. “At the risk of stating the obvious, this is horse-sh*t,” she wrote on Twitter, asterisk and all.
Of course it is, but at least President Trump took a day off from this nonsense, as a favor to the country, all of the country and all of the people on all sides of everything – and he was boring, a sad man in front of a small crowd, in the rain, getting all the facts about everything all wrong. And those are the two alternatives here. Accept the total nonsense as if it’s complete truth, which is exciting, or accept a boring old man who can’t keep his facts straight, reading from a script, in the rain.
Is there a third alternative?