Ago last Thursday, they finished the...

FIFTY YEARS

November 02, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN, JR.

FIFTY YEARS ago last Thursday, they finished the presidential sculpture on Mount Rushmore. People who know me as an expert on presidential matters often ask, "Theo, why were those four presidents whose faces are carved on the mountain chosen?" And I answer, "who are the four?"

No, just kidding, I don't say that, I know. They are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Now, to be honest I did used to wonder exactly why these four presidents were chosen, too. Washington and Lincoln are obvious. But Jefferson and the first Roosevelt?

Here is the answer, as provided by President Calvin Coolidge when he spoke at a ceremony at the beginning of the project in 1927: "It is natural that such a design should begin with Washington. He represents our independence, our Constitution, our liberty. Thomas Jefferson emphasizes the element of self-government. In him was also embodied the spirit of expansion. The next great task was to demonstrate the permanence of the Union and to extend the principle of freedom to all. The master of this was Abraham Lincoln. To political freedom, Theodore Roosevelt strove to add economic freedom. By building the Panama Canal he brought into closer relationship the East and the West."

Since work on the monument was completed in 1941, there have been several proposals to add new presidents' faces. Naturally, Democrats in Congress objected to Republican presidents and Republicans objected to Democratic proposals.

That is why the most recent effort, led largely by Bob Tyrrell of the American Spectator magazine, to put Ronald Reagan up there failed. Some believe that additions to Mount Rushmore should be like new states -- if you let a Republican one (like Alaska) in, you also have to let a Democratic one (like Hawaii) in. So some responded to Tyrrell's proposal by suggesting that Reagan and a Democratic president both be carved in the mountain. However, no one could remember the name of a Democratic president.

Actually even that would not have worked. A New York senator proposed in the 1960s that Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt both go up. This got nowhere.

I believe FDR belongs on Rushmore. Historians rate him with Washington and Lincoln in recent "greatness" polls. Also, the project, which was intended to be paid for by private donations, was in fact largely paid for with New Deal dollars.

Proposals to add a new face got out of hand last winter when there was a serious and widely supported grass roots movement to have Elvis carved on Rushmore. This may have been what convinced George Bush formally and belatedly (no one ever thought to before) to dedicate the monument last July 4. Formal dedication means the monument is legally completed -- no addition is now possible: no Elvis, no Reagan, no FDR, no Ike, no Coolidge, no Bush, no Dan Quayle, no nobody, no matter how compelling the case.

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