President Donald Trump is billing his Fourth of July celebration as a "Salute to America." But the way things are shaping up, it's beginning to look a lot more like just a salute to him.
To be fair, Trump won't preside over anything as spectacular as the Bastille Day commemoration he attended in Paris a couple years ago. No missile launchers or Army tanks will roll down Pennsylvania Avenue. No troops will march past, saluting him smartly. Seems like the President finally bowed to concerns over the damage that the tank tracks could do to the pavement, as well as the exorbitant costs of securing and sustaining a parade route.
But he's all set to give a big speech at the Lincoln Memorial. He's ordered up a military flyover. And he's apparently arranged for a few tanks and armored vehicles to be staged prominently on the National Mall. According to the Washington Post, he's taking a personal hand in the preparations.
"Big 4th of July," he tweeted Tuesday. "The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World. Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!"
I don't really know how thrilled the Pentagon is to be supporting this. Maybe he's right. Maybe they're really fired up about it. But that wouldn't make it right.
The Fourth of July is not a military holiday. We set aside other days to honor our troops: Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day. Independence Day is about our difficult birth as a nation, about the moral courage it took for people living in 13 disparate colonies to throw off what they called the absolute tyranny of Britain's King George III.
"When a long train of abuses and usurpations," they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
It was a radical idea, new in the world and fraught with peril. As Benjamin Franklin allegedly observed after the Declaration was signed, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately."
But the "new guards" Franklin and his fellow Continental Congress delegates envisioned were not purely military in scope. Indeed, the founders recoiled at the idea of a standing army. When they talked about securing a better future (albeit a future that, at that time, was marred by the scourge of slavery), they were referring primarily to the rule of law, to free trade and fair taxes -- to self-rule. The Fourth of July, then, has little to do with the troops who won or maintained our independence; it's about the very idea of independence itself.
And it's certainly not about politics. That's why most presidents in recent memory have eschewed large, dramatic speaking events and opted instead for something more restrained on the South Lawn of the White House or at local festivities across the nation.
We'll have to wait and see what Mr. Trump says when he mounts the rostrum, but if past is prologue, he will launch into boasts about what he believes his administration has accomplished. He will assail his political enemies. He will treat the crowd on the Mall like they were at a MAGA rally.
He will deliver applause lines. He will brag. He will gloat.
I fear he will also politicize the military yet again, describing the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform as if those sacrifices were made in his honor. He will bask in the glow of the martial music and the waving flags and, of course, the flyover -- which will include two aircraft dedicated solely to flying the commander in chief around: Air Force One and the new Marine One helicopter. He has requested that the service chiefs stand with him as the planes fly by.
He will probably spend tens of millions of dollars to do this. We don't know exactly how much, because the Pentagon hasn't released cost estimates. But he will placate us by saying this is about honoring the troops and their families. If he really wanted to do that, he'd give them the holiday off.
And if he really wanted to salute America, he'd spend some of this money on the infrastructure, health care and educational needs of our citizens ... not on some vainglorious display of military might.
As he stands before the statue of Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, I hope he heeds the wisdom attributed to our 16th President: "I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him."