The Fourth of July has long been Cinderella to official Washington's favorite celebrations -- the President's inaugural and the tourist bureau's Cherry Blossom parade.
But this weekend's spectacular gathering of over a half million suggests the Fourth is making a comeback as a mass patriotic, folk rite in the nation's capital, as elsewhere.
Partly, the cycles of national mood and extroverted patriotism lie behind the Fourth's comeback here.
Also, Washington's own cycle of suburban flight and a tenous return to the metropolitan region's center appears to be a factor.
For the first time in years, Washington even had its own Fourth of July parade -- prelude to a daylong festival for the crowds that stretched from the Capitol steps to the Potomac, to head a Beach Boys pop concert, then highbrow soul with Pearl Bailey and the National Symphony, and finally to watch the fireworks and their mist of cinders drift past the Washington Monument.
Not since the bicentennial summer of 1976 had more Americans gathered here for the Fourth. More than a million and a half came then.
The next biggest events were the 200,000 evangelical Christians who rallied on the Mall in April 1980 and the 178,000 who gathered for the visit of Pope John Paul II in the fall of 1979. Last week's Equal Rights Amendment rally drew 3,000 to Lafayette Park to launch the final drive for ratification by the states.
By several measures, Americans this Fourth of July felt better about their country.
This summer, so far, is the first in three years free of domestic or foreign depressants. The summer of 1979 began with gasoline lines, a plunge in President Carter's approval rating, and his desperate effort to convince Americans he could manage the energy crisis. Last summer Americans anxiously awaited release of the hostages from Iran, and were distracted by the election campaign.
By a novel measure of the gross national spirit (GNS) -- a composite index of national mood published by Public Opinion magazine -- Americans approached the summer of '81 at virtually the same level of enthusiasm as the summer of '76. That bicentennial summer, Americans were shedding the anxious remmants of the Watergate presidency and went to a Washington "outsider," Jimmy Carter, for a leader. The national spirit rose from that summer's rating of 1,274 to over 1, 400 by Mr. Carter's first summer in office. By 1980 the country's mood had dipped lower than 1974's Watergate low of 1,026. The nation is not exactly euphoric, however, opinion analysts caution. Americans' sense of how things are going for themselves, the economy, and the government's leadership is still barely half the optimum possible level of such indexes.
Five out of 10 Americans still say "things are going pretty badly or very badly," according to a May 1981 Yankelovich, Skelly & White survey. This is down from 70 percent in 1974. But it's still higher than the 3 in 10 who saw things going badly in mid-1977.
The Washington metro region, meanwhile, is apprently undergoing some of the same evolutionary patterns as other population centers. Cities like Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Louisville have been packing in crowds as the downtown centers refurbish their waterfronts and promote cultural festivals.
Washington is building a new convention center downtown. And Pennsylvania Avenue -- part of which is still blighted by the exodus of retail stores to the suburbs -- is getting a facelift along the Capitol Hill- White House parade route.
But the Fourth as a holiday remains somewhat slighted here in Washington.
Charles W. Ferguson, the citizen behind the fledging "National Independence Day Parade Committee," is an auto dealership salesman, with no public title or claim to fame. The White House wished him well but declined to take part in the short national parade along Constitution Avenue.
The Reagan staff ended a recent tradition of inviting the White House press and their families to observe the Fourth of July fireworks from the executive mansi on's lawn. They kept it a private White House affair.