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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

White House Watch: Let's celebrate freedom with an old-fashioned Fourth

WASHINGTON - What this country needs right now is a good, old-fashioned, neighborly Fourth of July. Children and flags. Parades and floats. Ice cream and watermelon. Back yards and sparklers. Remembering how the nation was founded. Celebrating freedom.

Maybe even a surreptitious Pledge of Allegiance.

No presidential photo op. No presidential proclamation. No commercialization. No corporations telling us how to celebrate. No politicking.

No contrived blueberry-strawberry tart shaped like a flag from the recipe in Martha Stewart's Living magazine.

Business doesn't have a good reputation right now. Neither does the government. It's impossible to pick up the newspaper without seeing more evidence of greed and corruption in the wacky world of high finance. You have to feel sorry for all the millions of honest businessmen and businesswomen tarnished by the bad eggs who have stunk up the marketplace.

President Bush said the wave of corruption is “outrageous” and the bad people will be “held accountable.” Except that months after the Enron scandal, nobody has really been held accountable.

If you haven't noticed, insurance rates are going through the roof. Tall buildings, tunnels, and bridges - anything that might be a target for terrorists, who undoubtedly have junked the 9/11 methods of attack for something new - are getting huge premium increases, raising rents and tolls for Americans still wondering when the recession is going to end.

The middle-aged with shrinking 401(k) plans are despondently wondering how it will be after retirement to work to make ends meet in a minimum-wage job while fighting arthritis and bunions. The stock market is down, says Mr. Bush, because corporate profits are down, there's uneasiness about possible future terrorist attacks and there are questions about business ethics. But the economy is strong, he insists.

Daily life after 9/11 is back to normal for most Americans, except for the jarring reminders of the attacks - tightened (sometimes inane) security measures, security debate, hand-wringing over inadequate security, security breaches, etc.

The national resolve to “get” Osama bin Laden seems to have evaporated. The federal government has no idea where he is, if he is. Mr. Bush's speeches are a broken record: We are a great country. The terrorists underestimated us and thought we would do nothing but bring a lawsuit against somebody. The United States is winning the war on terrorism, whatever that means right now, but the war will last our lifetime.

Congress again is mired in partisan squabbling, electioneering, marathons of fund-raising and finger-pointing. Amtrak might go out of business or it might not. The nation might figure out what to do with its spent nuclear waste or it might not. The welfare system might be improved or it might not. Our schools might be improving or they might not. There may or may not be a little relief from the high cost of prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are getting protective masks to guard against biological and chemical agents.

The euphoria of having fat state coffers is gone. Just as the national deficit is back and we're facing the consequences of those $300 rebate checks last year, states are scrambling to figure out how to junk some priorities set back when there were rainy-day funds.

Traffic congestion is getting scary. “Average” Americans spend days, over the course of a year, stuck in traffic jams. That fits into the feeling that the quality of life in America is declining, despite our gadgets, wealth, and determination to live well.

More than a fourth - ONE FOURTH - of lakes in the United States are dangerously contaminated with mercury or other poisons from industrial chemicals, meaning that fish from 79,000 lakes could be harmful to eat, especially for children and pregnant women.

Our government is less trustworthy than it once was. The Pentagon has said testing of a missile defense shield has been far more successful than in truth it has been. Under the rubric of security, the Justice Department says our civil liberties are as strong as ever, even as it imprisons people without charging them with crimes. The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that clean air costs too much.

A country in which some judges rule that saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school is unconstitutional because it implies endorsement of religion (“one nation under God”) needs a day off.

Here's hoping your Fourth is rich with old-fashioned sentiment and tradition, a day without any cataclysms from nature or man, a flag-unfurled day of feel-good patriotism and food, a day of simplicity and childlike joy in being alive.



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