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Published: Thursday, 7/8/2004

The trappings of empire

ONE aspect of a July Fourth outdoor concert in the nation's capital is that you can't beat the setting, the Mall which provides views of the nation's principal civic temples, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and all the other markers and monuments that are magnets for visitors.

Oh, yes, and the fireworks. But from there on, the Sunday night show trailed down hill, with its pastiche of popular culture and orchestral war horses, its effort to sort of unite the American people in one grand patriotic show, complete with more men and women in uniform than one is apt to see in hometown America from the beginning of one year to the end of the next. A Washington Post writer remarked that "the unattractive idea of vote-getting seemed to be the subtle complication of this year's Capitol Fourth celebration." The audience looked happy, healthy, and most decidedly affluent.

Washington is a political community, with a chasm evident in its main governmental institutions. It is suitable for a great republic with a Constitution that is older than that of most other nations, However, the trappings of empire seem more evident year by year, reminding us of Benjamin Franklin's reply to a question about what kind of government he and the other Founding Fathers had constructed. "A republic, if you can keep it."

London has its pops orchestras and its royal processions, Old Vienna lives off its musical heritage. Both have been centers of great imperial power. And they were financial and artistic capitals as well as imperial ones. As one trundles down the pathway of history, it is appropriate to wonder just what kind of lasting tradition we are creating in our own national political capital. At such moments one wonders, too, whether it is a good idea to have the seat of government in a city so dominated by politicians and bureaucrats.

An Independence Day concert centering around a single theme, varying from year to year, might be preferable to a town hall variety show, such as the Washington event has become.

And as for pop star Clay Aiken, whose appearance obviously is intended to troll for younger viewers, he really had a bad hair day.

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