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A Case of Too Much Love, Too Soon

October 08, 2000|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman teaches history and American studies at Boston University. His new book, "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics and Society," will be published next spring

BOSTON — In Washington, congressional Republicans seek to set aside the law prohibiting memorials to individuals until 25 years after their death in order to build a monument to Ronald Reagan on the National Mall. In Los Angeles, UCLA recently announced plans to rename its medical center for the former president, whose Southern California friends have pledged $150 million to rebuild the hospital. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, established three years ago to shepherd through Congress the redesignation of Washington's National Airport, has launched an effort to name a significant public work for Reagan in each of the 50 states. Already, plans are underway for a 92-mile Reagan trail in Illinois, a Reagan turnpike in Florida and a new aircraft carrier. The nation, and the ex-president's reputation, have become victims of women--and men--who love too much.

Sadly, this tale of excessive devotion by family and friends and partisan struggle against partisan rivals is nothing new. The Commemorative Works Act, adopted 14 years ago to remove politics from the process, has not succeeded--and never truly could have. Historical monuments, particularly presidential memorials, have long been, and likely will remain, arenas for cultural conflict.

Nancy Reagan and the Gipper's California cronies are not the first ex-president's admirers to burnish his legacy before he has long departed the national stage. Ulysses S. Grant himself selected the site for his final resting place in New York's Riverside Park and, immediately after his death, Grant's friends began extravagant efforts to construct not just a tomb but a "national memorial" celebrating the fallen leader's "patriotism and rare service to the nation." Grant's friends beat back an effort by veterans' groups to move the remains to Washington, preferring to maintain private control over the president's grave and his legacy. As years passed, however, the Grant Memorial Assn. nearly went bust, and the monument fell into such obscurity that the question "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" became a running joke.

In 1919, immediately after the death of Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider's friends and admirers formed the Roosevelt Memorial Assn. (RMA). Even though 85 years had passed between the death of George Washington and the completion of the great obelisk, and 57 years elapsed from Lincoln's assassination to the dedication of his memorial on the mall, the RMA could bear no such delay. TR's friends, including the man who wrote the bestselling "Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt," would not wait for the verdict of history and moved immediately to place their hero on the National Mall with the father of the country and the savior of the Union.

Like Reagan's admirers, the RMA raised millions, developed plans for the memorial at its own expense and lobbied Congress, even though cooler heads wanted time for "the grass to grow on his grave before we pile up marble." No longer, one critic wrote, in words that might apply to Reagan backers, would the friends and families of politicians rely upon "that vague thing called the truth of history and to Father Time himself." Instead, they could quickly fabricate an immortal reputation.

The RMA's intense three-year effort failed when Rep. John Boylan (D-N.Y.) convinced his colleagues that no TR monument should go up on the Mall before the nation had recognized such long-dead heroes as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Boylan proposed that the sage of Monticello be honored on the Tidal Basin site most coveted by TR's boosters.

Boylan's opposition raised another common sore point in the lingering controversy over presidential monuments: partisan politics. For decades, Republicans had blocked efforts to construct a Jefferson memorial in the nation's capital because Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was associated too closely with the opposition. After a decade of partisan wrangling, the Senate finally approved a monument in 1911 when Georgia Democrat Augustus Bacon joined his Jefferson bill to a plan by Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge to honor Alexander Hamilton. Still, the divided House rejected the measure.

Not until the New Deal era, when the Democrats controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill, did Boylan's plan for a Jefferson memorial win congressional approval. The monument continued to face criticism until President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that his party considered the project the fair spoils of its electoral victory. "When the Democratic administration came back in 1933," FDR declared, "we all decided to have a memorial to Thomas Jefferson." He would no longer tolerate "the worst case of flimflamming this dear old capital of ours has been subjected to for a long time," and finally laid the cornerstone in November 1939.

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