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Letter From The Editor

July 2024
3min read

The mails this month brought us a large carton from the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission; it disgorged a shiny box labelled “Media Kit,” which was big enough to hold the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Within that was a shiny file folder containing only some thin leaflets. A meaner or more thrifty commission could have stuffed its whole message into a No. 10 envelope. Conceived with all the skills of the soap-wrapper-designer’s art and full of public-relations zing, the kit seeks to fire us up about a rather vaguely described program of events, happenings, and nonhappenings through which 1976 will remember 1776. Frankly, we thought the White House had forgotten.

Not a bit of it. The commission reminds us of some immortal words of President Nixon back in 1969: America is 50 states. America is big cities, small cities and small towns. It is all the homes and all the hopes of 200 million people.

With a big staff like that at the White House a man can get at statistics in a twinkling, to be sure, but the President has a 1973 message for us, too. The bicentennial, he notes in the new leaflets, “offers a major challenge to our Nation’s communications media, for they have a unique opportunity to help bring alive the true meaning of the Bicentennial for every American.”

We poor ink-stained devils appreciate any word at all from the seat of government these days, but the President was a little skimpy on specifics. The leaflet itself set out to supply them, however. There would be, it said, a “massive Birthday Party for our Country,” although where or when was left hanging, because the leaflet writer was hurrying on to the deeper meaning. The impassioned capitalization indicated that this was the Clarion Call:
The Bicentennial can serve as the focal point for a Continuing American Revolution. The Bicentennial can gather the initiative, the ingenuity and the energies of this Nation—this People—together, to move the American Dream much closer to reality for every single citizen, no matter what his origins.
In short, the Bicentennial can serve as a focal point to get on about the business of improving our Quality of Life. If all of us start now and act together, major steps can be taken by the time of our Bicentennial to begin to solve the energy crisis, and at the same time satisfy our human need for a healthy and pleasing natural environment. Using the Bicentennial, we can step up the work to eliminate urban blight, and assure the improved public transportation, more attractive environments and better planning our urban areas need. By 1976, we can be a long way down the road toward ending lingering discrimination in all its forms. When we think and act united [ sir ], we can formulate better plans to educate our Youth. We can help instill deepening respect for Law and Order. And we can do even more, when we work together in this Nation, in this Heritage we call America.

All in all, that is a pretty tall order to load on a timid little bicentennial. It is the equivalent of wishing the labors of Hercules onto Caspar Milquetoast. And it is the same instant Utopia the commission was talking about two and three years ago—since which time there has been no significant action at all. A modernistic logo, reproduced above, was adopted, a few medallions were minted, and a number of worthy projects were endorsed. Despite the rhetoric quoted above, the commission has almost no money and sees its role merely as one of encouraging and “co-ordinating” (whatever that means) the activities of others, whether states, cities, or private organizations. The commission reflects the administration, which has had its mind on other matters.

It is at first glance an awkward time for 1976 to becoming along, like having measles on one’s birthday. The Quality of Life, Law and Order, and the American Dream are at some kind of ebb, and the country is as gloomy as it is thought to have been optimistic a century ago, in 1876, when a great Centennial Exposition proudly displayed the fruits of America’s first century.

Yet in fact the i87o’s were a bad time too, a period of depression, panic, and racial trouble, the era of the scandalridden Grant administration and, in the fall of 1876, a stolen election (which placed Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House). Men bemoaned the times and the decline of high principle in public life. Despite all that, the exposition at Philadelphia was the greatest, most enjoyable party the nation had ever given and has been remembered long after many of the troubles of Grant’s seedy Presidency.

Could it be that this is what we need again? Would not a great wingding of a fair centralize and dramatize the whole bicentennial? Since the big cities cannot or will not play host to it, let it be built in the District of Columbia, or some great open space. For the price of, say, one already obsolete but yet unbuilt nuclear aircraft carrier or a few unneeded throughways, the great 1876 fair can be repeated in an even more exciting fashion. (In an early issue, we will remind our readers how that earlier celebration looked.) It would be helpful if a few historians were consulted, but the main thing is to take the job away from commissioners and bureaucrats and turn it over to people who know how—the scientists, the technologists, the theatrical producers, and, above all, the people who built Expo 67 and Disneyland. If the hour is late, we must remind the doubters of Professor Toynbee’s theory that a great response can only come when people face a great challenge. It is time to start on a United States Bicentennial Exposition, financed basically by the federal government, that will be the greatest world’s fair in history.

—Oliver Jensen

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