Capital Offense

When my niece and a friend of hers visited Washington recently, they spent most of their time shopping. I had to lay down the law. “You must visit the National Mall,” I told them.

“Oh, goody,” responded Alysia, who is 15. “Another shopping mall.”

Actually, she’s not too far off the mark. Last week, the National Park Service demonstrated that the long-standing rules prohibiting commercial marketing on the Mall—the 146 acres of parkland commissioned by George Washington that is home to some of our nation’s most treasured monuments—do not apply to certain events. In particular, they do not apply to gaudy National Football League extravaganzas starring Britney Spears.

The four-day festival, dubbed “NFL Kickoff Live From the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla,” began on Labor Day, with activities such as the Coors Light “Field Gold Kick,” the Reebok “Run to Daylight” and the Pepsi Vanilla “Let It Fly” events. The big day was last Thursday, when jumbo TV screens set up between 3rd and 14th Streets broadcast the season-opening NFL game between the Washington Redskins and the New York Jets. During the concert, when Britney and her belly-button needed a rest, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and others stepped in.

Perhaps the event’s organizers stumbled on a Park Service brochure and decided that, instead of being as big as 11 NFL football fields, the Mall should instead resemble 11 NFL football fields—on Super Bowl Sunday.

Whatever the case, it stinks. The Park Service’s rationale for selling out the Mall centered on the promotional nature of the event, with commercialism in the form of “sponsor recognition,” not advertising. How like the federal government not to call anything by its real name. And how like this administration to step in and save corporations and friends in need—like the NFL, which had little interest in paying the $10 million tab for the event on its own.

The results were impressive—a heady mix of marketing, entertainment and sports. What else? Oh, yes, patriotism. The best spot from which to view the concert was reserved for military personnel and their families. Extra-special homage was paid to veterans of the Global War on Terrorism.

I suppose it’s naive to be surprised when yet another corporation wraps itself in the American flag. But the NFL took it a step further. Its commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, even managed to get a meeting with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to pitch the festival. Silly me. I thought the Pentagon was prohibited from commercial activity. Here’s how they got around that one: The Pentagon didn’t officially endorse the event but did agree to make it part of Operation Tribute to Freedom.

There’s a reason the Mall is commercial-free. With its stately lines of American elms, its internationally renowned Japanese cherry trees, its flower beds and gardens, its ornamental pools and fountains, the Mall is a place to reflect on our country and its principles—principles that supposedly can’t be bought. And yet Mall officials and historians say they have never seen a day quite like last Thursday, when private enterprise so completely consumed the area.

Then again, maybe I’m old-fashioned. Maybe this should be a trend.

Hugh Hefner surely recognizes the phallic nature of the Washington Monument. Perhaps it could become the Playboy Monument. How about the Perrier Reflecting Pool? (Oops, make that Poland Spring. Perrier sounds too French.) The Miracle-Gro Botanical Gardens? The Harley-Davidson Vietnam Memorial? The Sherwin-Williams White House?

Selling out the National Mall is hardly less foolish. Luckily, a higher power recognized this. Last Thursday in Washington, it rained.