Friday, June 27, 2008

Lamentation for Independence Day

The editorial board of the Jewish Daily Forward gets it exactly right in the June 26 issue, written in anticipation of Independence Day one week from now. Under the headline, "The Gift of Freedom," the Forward says:

Most of us seldom give much thought to the Fourth of July. It’s one of the most important holidays on our national calendar, one of the very few that is observed simultaneously by all Americans without regard to faith, origin or regional whim. It is, some say, the only holiday specifically dedicated to celebrating this nation. For all that, we mostly celebrate with barbecues or trips to the beach. If we seek some holiday spirit, we might watch a parade or catch some fireworks. A few of us might even get to thinking — some joyfully, others with mixed feelings — about patriotism, the flag or our soldiers overseas.
Ever since I moved to Charlottesville (with, I think, one exception), I have spent the morning of the Fourth of July on top of Mr. Jefferson's Little Mountain to celebrate Independence Day with new citizens as they take their oath of naturalization at the able hands of judges from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Over the years the speakers have included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (in 2000; photo at left), author Frank McCourt, newspaper publisher Al Neuharth, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and actor Sam Waterston (in 2007, photo below) (I've been hoping that late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson will be invited soon; he became an American citizen in February and talked about the process on his show -- his pride in being an AmCit is palpable.)

I've been lucky in that some years I've gone as "press" (even before I was blogging) and usually had a great seat in the media corral. Consequently, I've got some terrific pictures and (last year, for the first time) video. In addition, Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville take turns, year by year, in setting up a voter registration table to grab the new citizens before it's too late.

I won't be going up the mountain this year, however, because although it was earlier announced that the speaker would be documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, today the word went out that Burns has been bumped by Bush -- President George W. Bush, that is.

It's not that I have any objection in principle to the president speaking. Under other circumstances, it could be interesting. But his presence is going to cause inconvenience of major proportions. What has been a rather informal, local event -- the Charlottesville Municipal Band plays patriotic tunes, local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance -- will be turned into a circus.

Normally, anyone can attend the naturalization ceremony. It requires no ticket, no entry fee. People are free to wander the grounds. (The ceremony ends just before noon, so that those who wish to do so can walk down to Mr. Jefferson's gravesite to observe a family service commemorating the anniversary of his death.)

None of that will be true this year. Security will be at a premium. People will be searched, prodded, and scrutinized for their political opinions. It won't be fun, entertaining, or informative -- just a hassle.

It's not just the metal detectors and body cavity searches that concern me. When President Bush comes to a public event, those who disagree with him are discouraged from attending -- sometimes even prevented from attending by force. What will happen if someone shows up with t-shirts indicating support for Barack Obama or Ron Paul? Or t-shirts with slogans like "The Constitution Means What It Says," "Stop the War!," or "What Part of 'Limited Government' Don't You Understand?"? (Placards and signs of any sort will, of course, be forbidden, though t-shirts can be hidden under other garments and displayed at the right moment.) Will Albemarle County police be on hand to arrest people for exercising their First Amendment rights?

This won't be the first time a sitting U.S. President has spoken at Monticello on July 4th. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford was the featured speaker. Unlike our current president, Ford was modest in his approach to the office. (Churchill might have said he "has a lot to be modest about," but he would have been incorrect.)

Ford inherited the White House from another president who, like Bush, failed to understand that the Constitution provides for three co-equal branches of government. Like Bush, Richard Nixon tried to expand the powers of the presidency with utter disregard for Congress and the Courts. Like Bush, Nixon was paranoid and rigid, with little understanding for free markets or individual liberty. Nixon famously compiled an "enemies list" of those who disagreed with him on policy issues.

Ford, in contrast, understood that Congress and the Courts also had a role to play in the making of public policy. He rejected the "imperial presidency" model, although his chief of staff (later vice president) Dick Cheney took away from the Ford White House a festering theory of the "unified presidency," which manifests itself in such things as "signing statements" in which the President, rather than vetoing a bill as provided by the Constitution, signs it but explains what parts he feels the Executive Branch can disobey. (Ford vetoed more bills in a month than Bush has vetoed in the entire eight years of his presidency.)

One of the traditions at the Monticello Independence Day celebration is for the Clerk of the Circuit Court to read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (the part that begins, "When in the course of human events ...")

Wouldn't it be delicious if this year, in addition to the preamble, he could also read the bill of indictment that makes up the core of the Declaration? For those unfamiliar with it, here are a few lines of reminder:
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good...

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only...

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:...

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:...

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:...

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation...

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people....
While I would love to see the expression on George Bush's face as that text is being read out, I still prefer to spend my Fourth of July without being wanded by a security guard. So I expect I'll be as far from Monticello this year as possible. I may even head up to D.C. for the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and the fireworks on the National Mall.

Leave it to this White House to ruin the Fourth of July.

Update, Monday, June 30: Monticello has announced that there will be a limited number of tickets available to the ceremony on July 4. Only one thousand free tickets will be distributed beginning at 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 2. I wonder whether the friends and family members of the new citizens will be required to get those tickets, or if they have another means to attend the ceremony.


Jonathan said...

So what happens to Ken Burns? Does that mean he's not coming, or he makes a shorter speech?

Quite frankly, I was looking forward to seeing Burns; I admire his films. Which is a lot more than I can say for the work of Bush.

Rick Sincere said...

Ken Burns deferred to the President. Monticello will invite him to speak on another occasion.