By: Nicholas Confessore
I F INDIANA IS the Republican stronghold of the Midwest, then Hamilton County—a prosperous, fast-growing suburb outside Indianapolis—is the Republican stronghold of Indiana.
The county regularly backs GOP presidential candidates by a margin of nearly four to one and, as part of the sixth congressional district, bears partial responsibility for conspiracy-hound Dan Burton. So, when the time came last February to consider names for a new high school in the town of Fishers, it was only natural that someone would recommend naming it after Ronald Reagan, who had just celebrated his ninetieth birthday.
“If we take an easy and uncreative route by naming this school simply after its location, we will be wasting an opportunity,’ Young Republican activist Jeff Heinzmann declared in a speech before the Hamilton Southeastern School Board. But naming it after Reagan, he argued, would offer an opportunity to celebrate. An opportunity to inspire. And an opportunity to give a small measure of thanks.”
And then, recalls interim Superintendent Charles Leonard, Heinzmann ‘went on to say that there was a Reagan foundation that might contribute some funds for signage if that were done.” In fact, says Leonard, “We started getting c-mails here suggesting that it be ‘Ronald Wilson Reagan High School.’ But we were getting them from outside our school district. They were aggressive.” The badgering back-fired: In the end, 88 recommendations for “Fishers High School” beat out 41 suggestions for Reagan.
This is not how it was supposed to be. As the Gipper turned 90, his acolytes spoke of a veritable epidemic of Reagan-mania sweeping across the land. “Ronald Reagan is loved and admired by millions of Americans, and by countless others around the world,” read a House joint resolution that President Bush signed in January . “On his 90th birthday, the Gipper’s influence on America today is greater than it was twenty years ago,” wrote The National Review’s Larry Kudlow. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist even testified in favor of a bill, sponsored by GOP Representative James Hansen, to memorialize the still-living Reagan on the National Mall—right there with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
Clearly,” Norquist told a House committee, ~America loved Ronald Reagan, and the Congress should recognize the will of the people by passing this bill.”
There’s just one problem with this nostalgic groundswell for the Gipper: It doesn’t exist . Since Norquist launched the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997— aiming to have Reagan honored in every one of the nation’s 3,067 counties—the number of Reagan dedications has crept upward from eleven to about 45. And the going has been tough.
In 1998 Republican Speaker Jim King (with Norquist’s help) pushed legislation through the Florida assembly to rename the 312-mile Florida Turnpike after Reagan—generating so many angry phone calls that, as King later told the press, “[y] ou’d have thought I’d nominated Hitler.”
The Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, California, almost lost its congressional funding in 1994; when the building prepared to open four years later, it was discovered that planners had neglected to buy a likeness of the former president to adorn the new structure. To date, 38 U.S. states don’t have a single Reagan dedication.
This is no particular knock for Reagan, who was, after all, among the most popular presidents of the twentieth century.
But with the exception of John F. Kennedy—whose tragic death triggered an immediate outpouring of national admiration—presidential greats are memorialized well after their time, when the public feels it must reach back to the past to celebrate a cherished American value.
“The Washington [Monument],” observes historian Robert Dallek, ‘was completed after the Civil War, when the national impulse was to reestablish unity, to recreate a national spirit.... The Lincoln Memorial didn’t come along until the 1920s, after the passions of the Civil War had subsided. The Jefferson Memorial was not dedicated until 1943”—in the midst of World War II, when Jefferson served as a kind of avatar of democracy.
The Reagan memorialists have a similar purpose: the elevation of Reaganite political values as an explicit rebuttal to the Clinton presidency. It’s no coincidence that the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project got started in 1997 and 1998, just as Bimbroglio played out; that the overweening nostalgia surrounding Reagan’s birthday peaked just as Pardongate did; or that Norquist’s allies include some of the sweatiest Clinton-haters in Washington. In a sense, Reagan-worship is Clinton-hating by other means—a way of relegating the Bubba years to a brief hallucination between Reagan II (Bush père) and Reagan III (Bush fils).
The difference, as the Reaganites have discovered, is that most Americans have far more nostalgia for Reagan than for Reaganism (as opposed to Clintonism, which they liked considerably more than Clinton) . And, as a result, the impulse behind Reagan-worship has come almost entirely from inside the Beltway.
Ironically, the very people who came to Washington to join Reagan in smiting the arrogant, out-of- touch, top-down liberal elite—Norquist, Hansen, Bob Barr, Dennis Hastert—have established an arrogant, out-of-touch, top-down conservative elite bent on ramming their patron saint down the country’s throat. “The impulse to build [previous] memorials,” Dallek says, ~‘was the product of a long-term development of public sentiment.... What’s interesting about the Reagan memorials is the extraordinary speed with which they’re going about it. I mean, he’s not even dead.”
Perhaps this is why there are really only three places in America with a significant concentration of Reagan memorials: Illinois, where the dedications—the Ronald Reagan Birthplace, in Tampico; Eureka College’s Reagan Physical Education Center; and so on—mostly predate Norquist’s advocacy (and, in some cases, Reagan’s presidency); California, where Reagan dominated state politics for nearly two decades; and ... Washington, D.C.
There, in the cradle of big government, Reagan is now honored by both the second-largest federal building in the country (the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center) and the recently renamed Reagan National Airport.
Not satisfied with these tributes, the Reaganites want to replace Alexander Hamilton with Reagan on the $10 bill and, as Norquist puts it, “take that fascist Roosevelt off Rushmore and put Reagan on.” And then there’s the aforementioned Ronald Reagan Memorial Act, alias H.R. 452, sponsored by Hansen, chairman of the Resources Committee (the bill was first introduced last year as the Ronald Reagan Recognition Act by Representative Don Young, Hansen’s predecessor as chairman). Never mind that the idea was opposed by the National Park Service, most historians, and both the Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commissions—or that Reagan himself signed a bill in 1986 that prohibited anyone who hadn’t been dead for more than 25 years from being memorialized on the Mall. “The only people who are really behind it” says a senior Democratic aide, “are Grover Norquist and Hansen and Young before that. There’s no groundswell behind this.”
PERHAPS BECAUSE OF such underwhelming support, H.R. 452 would have let Hastert and Trent Loft pick two of the three members of the proposed Ronald Reagan Memorial Commission and designate the chairman. It would also have exempted the entire process from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which provides, among other things, that such commissions be open to the public and “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.”
“The whole idea is to get around all of the protections, whether the process and the rules in the Congress, or the laws protecting the Mall,” says Representative George Miller, until recently the committee’s ranking Democrat. So far, the bill is stalled in the House, and the Bush administration has not made it a priority. I think we’re just going to rename the Mall after Reagan,” grumbles Norquist. “That should take care of that.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the Reaganites steamrolled democracy in the entire Washington area . When Norquist pushed to rename Washington National Airport for Reagan back in 1997, “there was tremendous opposition,” remembers Arlington County board member Chris Zimmerman, a Democrat. “This was viewed as a hostile act that was done without a single hearing, with the mail in the congressional offices going eighty percent against it. ” Despite the opposition, congressional Republicans—led by Barr—defeated an amendment that would have required local consent.
But the crusade isn’t over yet. Last year, Young noticed that the airport’s subway stop—located in Arlington and nominally under the jurisdiction of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—was still called ~‘National Airport.” Under Metro rules, changing a station’s name requires a locality to petition Metro’s board of directors, and for two years the good citizens of Arlington had declined to rally to the cause. So, last October, Young submitted legislation requiring that Metro change the station’s name on every sign and map in the system. Another bill, sponsored by Young and Barr, would have required Virginia, Maryland, and Washington to emblazon Reagan’s name “prominently” on all signs for the airport.
Young’s bill hasn’t passed—but, in March, Barr threatened to hold up the Metro’s funding if they didn’t change the signs at the airport (the Metro board meets later this week to vote on the name change). “It’s unbelievable,” says Zimmerman. “The sign doesn’t say ‘Washington National Airport. ’ It says ‘National Airport. ’ It’s just the shorthand that people use. You want transit signs to be short and sweet. To me, this is just amazing, especially coming from conservatives.” The federal government, it seems, is not the solution to Arlington’s problems. The federal government is the problem.
NEW REPUBLIC Magazine
April 30, 2001 (Pgs. 18-19)
Volume 225 Number 18.
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