When I was 8 I got to to decide where my family would go on summer vacation. I chose D.C. over Disney World because I wanted to see the Declaration of Independence, which was an early sign of how popular I would be in high school. I also remember a White House tour, the Air and Space Museum, and a visit to Fort McHenry, where I got car-sick. On July Fourth we sat on the National Mall for “A Capitol Fourth,” the music-and-fireworks celebration broadcast on PBS, then in its 12th year. According to the papers, Henry Mancini performed, and I do remember being excited to see the composer of the Pink Panther theme, which was used at the time in commercials for fiberglass insulation. This paragraph is getting boring, let’s move on.
In the summer of 2002, I worked as an intern in the Senate. The atmosphere in D.C. and the country was different than it had been when I went on my family trip. In 1990 the Berlin Wall had just fallen, while summer 2002 was less than a year removed from 9/11. The more destructive consequences of patriotism were evident elsewhere, but the “Capitol Fourth” still had its kitschy, light feeling. Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry performed, and the event was hosted by Barry Bostwick, a classic Oh It’s That Guy actor who if I recall correctly performed some Broadway songs and laid on the cheese. In looking through records of other years I found musical guests ranging from Smokey Robinson to Gavin DeGraw to the Beach Boys to opera singer Renée Fleming, which speaks to how the evening of the Fourth may be as close as we’re going to come, as a country, to a unifying nonpartisan event that celebrates the entire country in a way that puts a smile on the faces of both red-state military families and blue-state ACLU donors.
Or, it was. This year, the relevant officials say, Donald Trump is hijacking the planning of the National Mall festivities and giving a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Trump’s address purportedly won’t be part of the “Capitol Fourth” concert itself, but seems likely to overshadow it given that he will be the first president to speak at the Mall celebration since 1951; according to the Washington Post he may also add a “second entertainment stage,” presumably for Ted Nugent. And if you’re hoping that maybe Trump is capable of not being an embarrassing partisan toad for just one night, consider that he’s currently in Normandy talking about his belittling nickname for Nancy Pelosi on Fox News against a literal backdrop of American service members’ graves. Oh, well. Everything ends badly, or else it wouldn’t end.