Kim Henderson – When patriotism was fashionable

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, August 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Here is WORLD commentator Kim Henderson.

KIM HENDERSON, COMMENTATOR: My wardrobe essential the summer of 1976 was a red- and-white striped seersucker number with navy buttons down the front. It was the nation’s bicentennial, and even sober-faced bankers in my hometown were donning flag-emblazoned ties and Statue of Liberty socks.

I was 10, so my recall is limited to the big stuff, like hoarding Bicentennial quarters and watching Philadelphia’s fireworks on a TV in our sunken den. (Sunken dens were a big deal in the ’70s).

I do remember it seemed as if the whole country was in birthday party mode. Restaurants advertised Spirit of ’76 combos, states offered special commemorative license plates, local libraries called quilters to a collective effort. The post office issued new 13-cent stamps bearing images of battles like Bunker Hill. Fire hydrants and ice cream alike wore red, white, and blue with pride.

And there’s a whole generation that owes part of their high school credits to CBS. Their wildly popular “Bicentennial Minutes,” featuring celebrity narrators like Charlton Heston and Leonard “Spock” Nimoy, taught more in 60 seconds than a whole semester of American History could.

One of the vintage segments features Jessica Tandy describing the demise of our Liberty Tree.

TANDY: For 10 years patriots met there to denounce British tyranny. Then the British came with axes to chop their living symbol down.

Then, the actress raises her eyebrows somewhat, and her chin, then proceeds to tell of a 14-cord yield of wood.

TANDY: But one Red Coat, hacking away at a high branch, slipped and fell to his death. The Liberty Tree died, but not without a struggle. I’m Jessica Tandy, and that’s the way it was.

Imagine that. A time when Hollywood was actually concerned with how it was.

Another Bicentennial brainchild was the American Freedom Train, a 26-car museum in motion. During its tour of the United States, more than 7 million ticket holders rode airport-style conveyors through display cases containing everything from George Washington’s copy of the Constitution to lunar rock. 

Organizers said that at the train’s first stop at Wilmington, Delaware, the line of those waiting to step into the past stretched three miles. Too bad it missed my side of the tracks. I would love to have seen Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.

On the big day—July 4th—a majestic flotilla of foreign ships sailed down the Hudson, parade-style. Ironically, vessels from Romania and the USSR came to celebrate our democracy in the heat of the Cold War. Even England’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip decided to make a Bicentennial visit. I wonder what defeated King George would have thought of that?  

Of course, in 1976 our nation was still reeling from assassinations and another war and something called Watergate. But a 10-year-old like me didn’t understand all that. I only knew I was part of a unique time in history, an era when patriotism was definitely in style.

These days, it can be good to remember such things.

For WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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