NATO turns 50 this year, and in honor of the occasion the Clinton administration is throwing quite a party. Later this month, heads of state from over 40 countries are assembling in Washington to participate in what organizers are billing as a "Once-in-a-Lifetime Event."

For three days, beginning April 23, the administration will host an almost endless series of receptions, luncheons, dinners, plenary sessions, press conferences, and official portrait opportunities in honor of NATO's birthday. General Motors and Daimler Chrysler have agreed to supply hundreds of vehicles for the use of the partygoers. Virtually every defense contractor in America has signed up to be a "corporate sponsor" of the event. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has announced an important new "children's art initiative" that aims to "educate and inspire a new generation of Americans about the significance of the historic Summit being held in Washington, D.C., Friday, April 23, 1999." (Translation: A bunch of 7th graders are painting a mural.)

Sounds like a great time. The only problem is, there's a war going on, and so far, NATO is losing. It's too late to cancel the party -- what would the kids do with their mural? -- so organizers have decided instead to make alterations in tone. The host committee, for instance, is looking for more serious, less jubilant music to accompany the formerly festive festivities. A "gala" hosted by the mayor of Washington has become a mere "reception." The entire weekend has officially been downgraded from a "celebration" to a "commemoration."

But wait. Isn't a commemoration an act of remembrance, an event designed to honor a person or thing that has died or retired (or found itself unable to remove a rapacious tin-pot dictator from the center of Europe)?

"That's not how we mean it," assures a White House spokesman. Doubtless not.

Which is not to say that the 50th anniversary of NATO won't be a cause for joy, at least in some quarters. Thanks to the awesome amount of police protection required for the visiting heads of state -- 17 security forces from various countries and the District of Columbia will descend on the city -- traffic in Washington is certain to be a mess. To ease the gridlock, close to 100,000 government employees, federal and local, get to celebrate -- not commemorate -- a new, paid holiday: NATO Day. Happy birthday.