“HOLD THE DATE!” President Trump tweeted on Feb. 24. “We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on Nixon Fourth. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
Fireworks? On Independence Day? You don’t say. But Trump is not the first flailing chief executive to try to transmute our apolitical zeal for July Fourth festivities into enthusiasm for himself. President Richard Nixon did it in 1970.
I wasn’t around for that, but I experienced a heavily mediated version of it a few months ago when I found a double LP titled “Proudly They Came . . . to Honor America” in a secondhand record shop. I bought it because I like old albums and anachronistic voices, and because it was priced to move at $1.
“Proudly They Came” was produced as an official souvenir of Honor America Day, a two-part religious service and patriotic variety show performed on the Mall on a sweltering July 4, 1970. The Rev. Billy Graham headlined the (more) religious part on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that morning; Bob Hope emceed the entertainment part from a stage near the Washington Monument that night. J. Willard Marriott, a friend of the president who had chaired his inaugural committee, had organized the event with Graham — and with discreet but substantial input from the administration. The hotel magnate and the minister then went out and promoted Honor America Day as a nonpartisan celebration of national unity.
That impartial branding was met with immediate skepticism, as folksy narrator Jimmy Stewart — multigenerational movie star and decorated World War II bomber pilot — acknowledges in the first minute of “Proudly They Came.” But having listened to those four crackly sides several times now, I find myself in the queasy position of almost believing it. There’s something seductive about the production’s performative guilelessness: How could people this unsophisticated possibly be trying to fool us?
In that, the record is an artifact of a primitive form of Trumpism.
The difference, of course, is that the GOP of Nixon cloaked its cruelty in appeals to the Silent Majority’s craving for the civility and order of the Eisenhower ’50s. Accordingly, the lineup of Honor America Day was designed to seem comfortingly bland even to the 400,000 (according to Stewart) overwhelmingly white and middle-aged (according to a Baltimore Sun reporter) people who came, proudly or otherwise. But if bland and orderly still appealed to GOP voters, Mitt Romney or Jeb! Bush might be president now. Trump’s unbridled bellicosity is the core — maybe the whole — of his appeal. Trump is the Bad Cop, and his party doesn’t have any good ones.
What does this tell us about what we can expect from his “Salute to America” on Thursday? Not much. The commander in chief has yet to expand on his four-month-old tweet vis-a-vis the day’s actual content. Another “American Carnage” speech like the one he gave at his inauguration 30 months ago, possibly punctuated by another windows-rattling F-35 flyover, seems like a distinct possibility. We know that he has asked for tanks to be parked on the Mall, a dire and dictatorial bit of imagery that would seem to recall the kind of violent social upheaval that the Silent Majority wanted desperately to escape. But an Honor America Day-like bifurcated observance — Jerry Falwell Jr. in the morning; Kanye, Kid Rock and Roseanne at night — would be a more truthful expression of how we got here.
In his 2015 book “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” historian Kevin M. Kruse writes that throughout June 1970, Marriott and Graham had at several turns responded to critics who accused them of engineering Honor America Day to be the first rally of Nixon’s (successful) reelection campaign. At a news conference a few days before the event, Graham allowed that antiwar protesters loved their country and predicted they “would come out to wave the flag, too.”
They didn’t need his permission, but it was still a nice thing for the reverend to say, which he immediately undercut by clarifying that atheists and agnostics were not welcome. Church and state, smurch and smate — to Graham, to Marriott, and to all the president’s other men, love of God and love of country were inseparable.
The sermon Graham delivered from the Lincoln Memorial the morning of July 4, 1970, excerpted at length on “Proudly They Came,” makes this argument explicitly. After so many spins of that old record, he still hasn’t persuaded me. But as someone who’s worked for a decade as a theater critic, I will tell you that Graham gives the album’s best performance by a country mile.
As for the nighttime show, Marriott claimed he had invited younger, hipper and blacker entertainers than the ones he ultimately got to show up — comedian Dick Gregory and vocal group The 5th Dimension turned him down, Marriott said, as had Johnny Cash.
The 67-year-old Hope was more typical of the diffident performers who answered the call. His circa 1970 cool quotient, adjusted for inflation, would today be “Lenoesque.” The lineup — Kate Smith, Red Skelton, Pat Boone, Jack Benny, the New Christy Minstrels, Dinah Shore — was like the anti-Woodstock, which was more or less exactly what Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, had asked Marriott to provide. “We need a solid cornball program developer,” Haldeman wrote in the margins of an early White House memo about Honor America Day. (The Haldeman note is documented in Kruse’s book.)
Two years earlier, Jeanne C. Riley had taken aim at the moralizing hypocrisy of conservatives — albeit on the local level, not the national one — in her signature hit, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” At this event, she performed Merle Haggard’s still-fresh love-it-or-leave-it anthem “The Fighting Side of Me.” Glen Campbell sang “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)," five years old but already a standard. The inclusion of a show tune from “Man of La Mancha” aside, a casual listener might guess these performances were from 1946, not 1970, the year of “Band of Gypsys” and “Led Zeppelin III.” This Thursday’s event will likely seem displaced by a similar span of time.
Back in 1970, Graham’s observance began with a 10:30 a.m. televised interfaith religious service for crowd of 15,000. After Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum’s reading from the Book of Leviticus, Graham lit into his sermon, which is excerpted at length on “Proudly They Came.” Graham noted that the Founding Fathers had valued the right to dissent, “but when dissent has no moral purpose, it is mere anarchy.”
His audience was left to wonder whether the struggle to protect voting rights for all American citizens or the effort to end the unjust war in Vietnam constituted a “moral purpose” in Graham’s view. Kruse reports that about 1,000 antiwar demonstrators and pot enthusiasts who’d gathered for a “smoke-in” made themselves conspicuous during Graham’s address. “A few hundred radicals, some nude, waded waist-deep into the reflecting pool and launched into antiwar chants,” Kruse writes.
There’s nothing at all on the record to indicate that this was happening, though it might explain why Graham sounds so angry. Certainly his performance is livelier than that of any of the musicians and comedians who gathered for the more relaxed evening portion of Honor America Day, which, like the morning service, was broadcast on TV and radio but drew a much larger crowd than the morning service. The U.S. Park Police estimated 350,000; on the album, Hope tells the audience that he’s just been told they number 400,000.
I had to read Kruse’s book to learn that Honor America Day had ended with the Park Police — under orders to exercise restraint — fired tear gas at the demonstrators after the latter began throwing rocks and bottles, resulting in a noxious cloud that enveloped protesters and Silent Majority members alike. In the July 5, 1970, edition of this newspaper, a reporter concluded that Honor America Day had “illustrated, perhaps better than any study or commission could, the polarization of American society.”
Is this a preview of what we can expect on Thursday? Code Pink has received a permit from the National Park Service to fly its 20-foot-tall Baby Trump balloon on the Mall in protest, and other demonstrations seem likely. I can’t help wondering what some future compilation of highlights from whatever Trump has planned might look like, to a connoisseur of antique recordings (or a scavenger looking for bottled water or iodine pills) who happens upon it in the sun-bleached hellscape of 2068.
Whatever form Trump’s “Salute to America” takes, I won’t be anywhere near it. Proudly, I’m staying away … to honor America.