The centennial celebration for the Statue of Liberty is almost four months away, but there's no need to hold your breath about what kind of event it will be. The program described last week by the chairman of the celebration committee is a paradigmatic example of American schlock, four days of glitz and glitter that likely will leave poor Miss Liberty blushing from torch to toe. By the end of those four days, the French may be demanding that we ship the old girl back.
One need only be told the name of the committee's chairman to realize what lies in store. The gentleman chosen for this job is none other than David Wolper, the Hollywood producer whose greatest gift to his country -- up to now, that is -- was the opening and closing schlock for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, or, as Peter Ueberroth and ABC Sports insisted on calling them, "The Games of the XXIII Olympiad." Wolper pulled out all the stops for that job, in the process assembling a monument to execrable taste by contrast with which a Super Bowl half time is a Du rer woodcut and the Grammy Awards broadcast a Mozart quintet.
It seems, though, that for the lady in New York harbor Wolper is going to outdo even himself, if that is humanly possible. At the cost of a mere $8 million -- a drop in the bucket to big-bucks Reaganites -- he will put on a show guaranteed to leave P.T. Barnum and Mike Todd spinning in their graves with envy. For starters, on July 3 the president will be joined aboard the USS John F. Kennedy by 3,000 fat cats, 3,000 journalists, an orchestra of 100 musicians and a choir of 1,000. At the press of a presidential switch, The Washington Post reported last week, "a beam of light will cross the harbor, slowly steal up the statue amid a swell of music, and finally illuminate Miss Liberty's face as the choir bursts into song."
As Wolper said, "It's going to be quite a moving moment." Not to mention a memorable moment and a magic moment and a special moment. In the Age of Moments we will have to reserve a precious place for this one, which surely will be just a teeny bit more memorable than such previous moments -- all preserved for ever and a day on videotape, all celebrated in lavish hyperbole and breathless rapture by the high priests of videoland -- as a slam dunkeroo by Dr. J or a spin and a grin by Mary Lou Retton.
But that moving moment is only the tip of Wolper's iceberg. Fifteen hundred new citizens are to be sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger on Ellis Island, and 40,000 others at simultaneous ceremonies elsewhere. There will be fireworks, cannons, tall ships, small ships, cheering crowds of millions -- all of this on July 3. In the days to follow there will be concerts by the likes of Johnny Cash and -- the event certainly would be incomplete without him -- Barry Manilow; appearances by stars from the wonderful world of sport, Mary Lou Retton being, of course, prominent among them; and the crowning touch, a party at the New Jersey Meadowlands attended by myriad stars and starlets from the even more wonderful world of movies and TV.
Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it? This is what they fought for at Bunker Hill, froze for at Valley Forge, triumphed for at Yorktown: Barry Manilow, Mary Lou Retton, the Harlem Globetrotters. But, hey, Wolper, make sure you don't leave anyone out. What about Joan Rivers? Liberace? Mr. T? Leo Buscaglia? Wayne Newton? Tiny Tim? John McEnroe? Ed McMahon? Bert Parks? Judith Krantz? Christo? Redd Foxx? Leona Helmsley? Sylvester Stallone? Donald Trump? Don Johnson? Reggie Jackson? John Houseman? Billy Martin? George Steinbrenner? Barbra Streisand? Sammy Davis Jr.? Barbara Walters? The San Diego Chicken?
Listen: If Wolper is going to go all the way for Miss Liberty, he's got to go all the way. No holding back on this one, no tiptoeing around the edges. Firecrackers and cannons aren't enough; this calls for an Air Force flyby, a Pete Rozelle special. It's all well and good to have the Boston Pops on hand, but we need Mantovani and Al Hirt and 101 Strings. If what we're going to have is bad taste, then let's make certain it's bad taste.
There are, to be sure, a few malcontents and spoilsports out there who think it's inappropriate to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty with "celebrities." They have the odd, if not heretical, notion that flag-waving and chest-thumping are not what the Statue of Liberty is about, that the emotions most suitable to the occasion are gratitude and humility. They think that a rhinestone-cowboy binge at the Meadowlands somehow is not exactly what Emma Lazarus had in mind when she wrote about "your tired, your poor," about "wretched refuse," about "the homeless, tempest-tost" -- about those whom, in another time, the Statue of Liberty welcomed to these shores.
Innocent fools that they are, these people actually think the centennial of the Statue of Liberty is no excuse for telling ourselves, as we have taken such self-congratulatory pleasure in doing of late, how wonderful we are. They have the preposterous idea that a three-ring circus, with the Great Communicator as ringmaster, does not exactly rise to the occasion: that tall ships are indeed vivid reminders of how millions of immigrants crossed the oceans, but that an aircraft carrier stuffed with fat cats and high rollers is a wee bit out of place.
What do they know? Obviously they don't know that in the land of show biz, every occasion, no matter how solemn, must be inflated to the outer limits of garishness and thereby rendered wholly trivial. They don't know that there's a buck to be made out there, especially when the buck comes wrapped around a symbol of national identity as potent as Miss Liberty. They don't know that what matters now is not the meaning of the ceremony, but the ceremony itself: the glitter, the glitz, the empty self-satisfaction masquerading as patriotism.
The truth is that the Wolper celebration is as exemplary a manifestation of the times as could be manufactured, and therefore exactly appropriate for the new, improved Miss Liberty. In our public life -- political, social, cultural -- substance no longer matters; style is all, and the style of the moment is vulgar, flashy and smug. To hell with "huddled masses yearning to breathe free"; send in the clowns.