Superbowl XXXVI, proclaimed by the National Football League to be a tribute to September 11 (themed “Heroes, Hope, and Homeland”) underscored the fact that there is something inauthentic about a spectacle that allows sports-bar patrons to experience masculinity vicariously by watching well-padded millionaires smash into one another for control of a leather ball.
The Fox Television Network, which had exclusive rights to broadcast the game, had promised “the most stirring, patriotic and emotionally charged Super Bowl ever.” Indeed, it proved to be a wartime pep rally, with spots made by players saluting the troops, satellite images from Afghanistan, and delegations representing police and fire departments as well as the Armed Forces. And while Irish rock band U2 won the prize for most testosterone-filled act—notwithstanding the irreverent spectacle of fans wildly cheering lead singer Bono, leather jacket lined with Old Glory, preening beneath the names of those killed by the terrorist attacks projected onto a giant bed sheet—the pregame show won the prize for most patriotic.
The pregame show was a film in two parts, with ex-NFL stars reciting excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, and the former living presidents (Nancy Reagan filled in for her ailing husband) celebrating Abraham Lincoln in his own words.
The announcer began the show with the question, “Just what is the cornerstone of . . . the much-envied American way of life?” The answer, he replied, is “the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees every individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Actually, the Declaration—a political act, not a legal charter—does no such thing. It is the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that guarantees our rights under the banner of “life, liberty, and property,” the “pursuit of happiness” being a flowery phrase that withers under examination: What makes one person happy might constitute a criminal act.
The first part opened in Independence Hall with actors depicting several Founding Fathers reciting famous lines. It then shifted to ex-NFL stars reciting the Declaration’s more stirring passages. Included in the roster were ex-Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, speaking from the Capitol’s rotunda, and ex-Seattle Seahawks quarterback Steve Largent, now a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, who spoke from a Western art gallery before a bronze of an Indian war chief. All of this was accompanied by a martial score by John Williams, heavy on the horns and drums.
Lest anyone miss the theme of multicultural unity, the line “all men are created equal” was repeated three times, ending with a group shot of people who looked as if they were swept from the waiting room of an INS office, including an Arab Muslim wearing a white head wrap. This theme was reinforced when a stern-looking black soldier recited the line “It is their duty to throw off the old government and provide a new future of security,” flanked by four other diverse but unrepresentative soldiers: two men (white and black) and two women (white and Asian).
The first part closed at the Jefferson Memorial, which is inscribed with several quotes, including “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” But reciting that would have seemed darkly incongruous, so another was chosen in praise of a uniform American identity.
To the grave tune of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” part two celebrated Lincoln, that “gaunt figure striding across the American political and philosophical landscape like a Colossus” whose “patriotic philosophy is especially apt right now.”
The former presidents and Mrs. Reagan quoted Lincoln expounding on the virtues of democracy and equality and the need to reject “the dogmas of a quiet past [that are] inadequate to a stormy present.” Images of pastoral America bathed in the setting sun—a mountain lake, a windmill in a golden field of corn—clashed with such martial shots as the Vietnam War Memorial, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and, of course, the crumbling World Trade Center Towers. The message was clear: Retribution against terrorists will help us recover an idyllic America.
While the pregame show lived up to Fox’s claim of the most patriotic Super Bowl ever, it should not be forgotten that selectively chosen words divorced from their historical context and glorified with powerful and pleasing images and music are the stuff of propaganda. Details that would have sullied the nationalistic triumphalism were excluded, such as Lincoln’s vow to win the Civil War “whether it meant freeing all the slaves or none of them” and his well-documented belief in the inequality of blacks—not to mention his prosecution of a bloody and unconstitutional war that allowed the federal government to become the colossus it is today. But a great nation needs heroes to enshrine in marble temples and worship in time of war, even if their mythic stat-
ure ignores their weaker human natures.
No mere words could better illustrate the pregame show’s sentimental idealism than what immediately followed: the singing of “America the Beautiful.” To continue the Capra-esque theme, I had hoped for a wholesome singer like Kate Smith, of whom Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “She is America.”
Instead, the 180 million viewers worldwide were subjected to the combined caterwauling of a skankily dressed woman (singer Mary J. Blige) with bulging breasts and a bare arm showing a tattoo of a cross, and a slinky girly boy in sunglasses (Latino pop star Marc Anthony). The illusion of Norman Rockwell’s America ended with the rude introduction of America the unbeautiful.