A Festive Fourth of July in the Nation’s Capital, even as Politics Loom

Robb Hill/for The Washington Post
Actors portraying the Founding Fathers and Abigail Adams read the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the National Archives in downtown Washington on Thursday.

They came decked out in red, white and blue garb, their bags filled with bottled water for a long day on the National Mall, eager to celebrate the United States of America in its capital city.

It had been a bruising week before. A presidential debate fueled concerns about the fitness of the country’s commander in chief. A Supreme Court ruling on immunity left legal analysts fearing that the rule of law had been undermined and the president given the power to act outside it.

Those who came felt the division. The despair. But if there was any day to set it aside, this, the country’s 248th birthday, was it.

“This year, when our country is so divided, it’s especially important to be at an event where everyone celebrates patriotism together,” said 61-year-old James Shinkle, who came to watch a historical reenactment performed on the steps of the National Archive. “Not divided. Together.”

Americans on Thursday fanned across the D.C. region – gawking at parade performers, walking through museums and joining historical tours. Crowds camped on the National Mall awaiting the evening’s fireworks were first met with a drenching, as rain soaked the Washington region shortly after 5 p.m. Locals and tourists huddled beneath trees, umbrellas and even makeshift tents made of picnic blankets, hopeful that the storm would dissipate before showtime. As of Thursday night, DC officials said a concert near the U.S. Capitol would start as planned at 8 p.m. and the fireworks shortly after 9 p.m.

The downpour was yet another slight hiccup for the holiday, following an overnight boil-water advisory that officials scrambled to resolve in the early morning hours. Then came a runaway horse that jolted a usually “slow-going” parade in Takoma Park, Md.

“I think people didn’t realize what they saw until the horse went by,” said Marilyn Sklar, who had come to the parade with her 21-year-old daughter and their dog, and was taking video of a group called the Washington Revels when the horse interrupted her shot.

The animal was chased by police before getting caught at Elm and Sycamore avenues – having traveled a total of about 1.2 miles across the neighborhood, according to members of the Takoma Park Facebook group. Takoma Park police said the horse, which was part of the parade procession, unexpectedly began running in the opposite direction of the route and grazed one person, though they were not injured. The situation was “promptly managed by the skilled handler on Elm Avenue,” police said.

In downtown D.C., hundreds lined Constitution Avenue NW in front of the National Archives, occupying prime real estate for the parade. The Kalski family arrived at 8:30 a.m. to stake out the same spot they claimed last year. Aware that their early arrival time means spending five hours outside with sons Parker, 8, and Graham, 9, Amanda and Brandon Kalski came prepared with packed lunch, electric fans, bottled water and, of course, a bag full of card games.

As the family settled in to play a game of Charades for Kids, Parker and Graham hoped the horses they saw during the historical reenactment last year would be back.

“Are you ready to shout ‘huzzah’?” Brandon asked Parker.

The crowd’s cheers became more subdued as the midafternoon sun beat down. Many wore the American flag sunglasses and hats vendors hawked at each corner, having resigned themselves to the inflated holiday prices in their search for a way to mitigate the heat.

The Karayacobian family had a different plan. The Californians spotted a fire hydrant spewing water. In seconds, Charlotte, 8, and her two brothers were running through the spray.

“We loved the parade but we were so hot,” Charlotte said. “I’m not really hot at all anymore.”

While the mood in the nation’s capital was celebratory, it was difficult to ignore the country’s fraught political climate. It weighed on the minds of John Han, 56, and Mindy Han, 55, as they made their way around the historic grounds at Mount Vernon.

When viewing the welcome video for the George Washington mansion tour, Mindy said it was “inspirational” to hear how George Washington “unified the country,” adding that she would “love to see that happen in today’s world if possible.”

Adele White, 62, and Howard White, 63, who visited Mount Vernon while on vacation from California, said they were “absolutely” thinking about politics as they caught the end of a military drill. And they were concerned for the state of the country.

“There is no unity; everything should be improved,” Adele said.

The pair said they had learned a lot from their day reading about history, and they thought others might as well.

“I think the candidates should take tours and read some of the words from our forefathers,” Howard quipped.

At the National Archives, Greg and Anna Murks of Houston considered a different president’s vision for the country as they approached an actor dressed as Thomas Jefferson.

“This is a phone,” Anna Murks joked to the actor. She held up the futuristic device to take a selfie.

The couple made the trip to D.C. in part to fulfill history buff Greg’s bucket list item of celebrating the nation’s birthday in the capital. They made their way toward the rotunda to view the Declaration of Independence; the line wrapped around the room and bled out into the hallway.

The Murks decided to take the trip to D.C. now because they said they feared some of the values embodied in the Declaration of Independence are slipping away.

“When I went to the Lincoln Memorial and I looked up at President Lincoln, I had tears in my eyes because I was asking for his help,” Greg said.

Greg said that more and more people are conflating patriotism with partisan support. In the current political climate, Greg said he feared “patriotism is being co-opted” by partisan interests.

“I’m here to reclaim the definition of patriotism,” Anna replied.

A different form of dedication was on display in the evening hours, when showers threatened to send the crowds skittering. Instead, umbrellas and ponchos became vendors’ hot ticket items as hundreds remained for the fireworks.

Mike Sonnenberg, 66, and his family members had come from Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York to experience what the holiday was like in the capital. When the rain came, Sonnenberg shelled out for a poncho and stayed put.

“Most of the locals told us this is so busy, you really don’t want to do it. We thought we’re only here once so we’ll do whatever we have to,” he said.

As the downpour eased to a light drizzle, people quickly began filling up the grassy lawn.

Olena Gaponenko and her 15-year-old son, Viktor, had watched the fireworks from Mall every year since he was born. They had arrived seven hours before the fireworks were set to begin, equipped with blankets, umbrellas, card games, books, water and fresh produce. Gaponenko said she, too, felt the atmosphere around D.C. becoming increasingly anxious as the election drew near.

But for her family, Fourth of July traditions remain a constant. Even in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, she said her family participated in the much smaller, socially distanced fireworks show on the National Mall.

This year, neither politics nor weather forecast would keep her from enjoying this day with her son.

“I’m able to put it aside,” she said. They would be there, she noted, “no matter what’s going on in the world around us.”