Honor America Day in 1970 was Ross Perot’s idea. The founder of Electronic Data Systems, one of the earliest “tech” companies, Perot was en route to becoming a billionaire and a presidential candidate 22 years later. Perot and others were weary of watching the networks’ (imagine, just three in those days) nightly coverage of Vietnam War protests in Washington, D.C.
So on this July 4, Perot would fly in hundreds of freshly-scrubbed teens from “leading families” with dependable hygiene to take part in the Honor America Day television special that evening..
Students boarded chartered jets at 4 a.m. that day from cities all over Texas, including my own. We were flown directly to the nation’s capital. The show was to be broadcast, live, that night from under the Washington Monument. We dressed in red, white and blue clothing and looking back, if we had sang or danced, we could’ve been mistaken for an “Up With People!” cast.
Most of us did what we were told: visit the monuments, the memorials, the Smithsonian and other related sites of interest. Don’t go on the National Mall, the chaperones said, because that’s where the trouble was.
The rioting began in the middle of the afternoon that day, primarily by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War versus the federal park police. The Cambodian invasion and the Kent State shootings two months earlier were the causal sparks. Law enforcement was under orders to maintain strict control of the area for the Honor America Day activities. Of course, the events as they happened were irresistible. I left the group and ran to the riots with my cameras.
Protests then weren’t anything like we see these days via CNN from Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore. It was police in simple uniforms, a nightstick pulled now and then and some tear gas. No snipers, no police sitting atop a tank. Rather, the collective maw of protesting citizens and authority. Seeing the cameras around my neck, a long-haired, hippie-type protestor walked up and offered me a beer and pot. I was 17.
“I thought we’d seen the last of you,” a friend of mine told me on the phone the other day, while catching up and recalling the day’s events. “You had disappeared into the tear gas.” (Her mom was the Chamber of Commerce manager; my father was the local newspaper publisher.) It was a few hours of political education I’ve never forgotten. It further sank the hook of journalism into my psyche: Man, this is news! This is fun!
The protests and rioting lasted the afternoon and the police eventually won out. It was stifling hot and humid and the participants on both sides were worn out.
The TV show started on time with vocal groups like The Association and The Fifth Dimension. No war protest songs from these guys. The Rev. Bill Graham led the invocation. Bob Hope was the emcee. Jack Benny told jokes. Sammy Davis Jr. and Ronald Reagan waved. Hope would make jokes about the protestors — long hair, no baths, no underwear — that sort of humor. (Har-har.) The cameras would pan into the crowd (us) and there we sat — smiling, appreciative American youth, eager for a punch line and some right-thinking humor. We certainly weren’t the only ones; thousands came for the event. It was a sell-out. (The tickets were free.)
Now and then, I can be “slow.” About halfway through the show, it dawned on me how we were collectively props in a big TV show. President Nixon came on stage, pointed toward us, and said how we were the flower of American youth, in contrast to the protestors earlier that day. He walked off the stage to cheering.
When the show ended, we were whisked back to our homes via the same jets. As it turned out, there were several of us discussing on the plane’s return trip the personal experience of being used as stagecraft in political messaging. Or, using the acronym of the day — we were HAD.
It was a valuable lesson into media manipulation, the fusion of politics and entertainment and symbolism to obfuscate the nut of the story. All in less than 24 hours. I haven’t been tear-gassed since.