Disney Wages the Latest Battle of Manassas

July 17, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

HAYMARKET, VIRGINIA — Haymarket, Virginia. -- In a churchyard here a gravestone reads: Stonewall Jackson Campbell May 2, 1863 Dec. 10, 1911

The infant Campbell was named for the Virginian who earned his name on a battlefield a few minutes' gallop from the churchyard, a soldier who on May 2, 1863, received a mortal wound at Chancellorsville, not far from here.

Problem is, much of American history was made not far from here, often by men who lived nearby: The church is hard by the intersection of the James Madison and John Marshall highways. Just over yonder lives Miss Beauregard, great-granddaughter of the Confederate general. And so it goes. You can hardly turn around out here without bumping into evocations of the nation's making.

This would be merely nice, not a problem, were it not for something that threatens to be the unmaking of this area. The Disney Company seems determined, almost irrationally so, to turn this area inside out and upside down by building, about a half-mile from the churchyard and 3.5 miles from the Manassas field where Jackson fought, a huge commercial and residential real-estate development, at the core of which will be an American-history theme park.

Unfortunately, many faulty reasons have been indiscriminately adduced for opposing Disney's project, so the one sufficient reason may get lost in the melee. It is that Disney has decided to build something that would radically transform, beyond recognition, an area that is, arguably, America's most defining landscape.

America has various defining landscapes, not all of them bucolic. One is Manhattan's forever unfinished skyline, emblematic of our heroic materialism. But none is more drenched in the history of heroic idealism than Virginia's Piedmont region, a perishable window on the past, a place which, were Jefferson and Washington and Lee to revisit it, would be comfortably familiar to them.

Some of Disney's critics would, if they could, freeze this region in time. They cannot. Development will come to this place because it is a short drive from Washington and the government that will not stop growing. But Disney's mega-development, by its scale and nature, would change beyond recognition a historic region rich in sites that millions of Americans come to as pilgrims to shrines of our civil religion.

Some of Disney's critics get the vapors at the thought of what the theme park might do to the telling of America's story. But if Disney or anyone else wants to make a skit, or a hash, of history, well, the right to vulgarize is one of America's most vigorously exercised rights. Anyway, Disney would be hard-pressed to do worse than, say, Oliver Stone's movies -- or, for that matter, than some historians do, including some of Disney's academic despisers.

Disney has armed its despisers by talking foolishly, as when chairman Michael Eisner said, ''I was dragged to Washington as a kid and it was the worst weekend of my life,'' or when a Disney ''creative director'' said the park would ''make you feel what it was like to be a slave.'' (See your sister sold down the river, then get cotton candy?) However, again, the point is not what Disney wants to do, but where it wants to do it.

The administration of environmental, transportation and other federal, state and local regulations provides many opportunities for Disney's opponents to slow the project's progress and raise its costs. In any such battle of attrition, bet on the multibillion-dollar corporation that buys lawyers by the battalions.

But why does Mr. Eisner seem bent on becoming the archetype of the Hollywood vulgarian, greasing with money (some of it to politicians) the slide of a great corporation into the role of coarse bully, stamping its bootprints on hallowed places?

One of the roads that would have to become an enlarged congested highway to serve the park is Route 15 which runs north to Gettysburg. There one of the Berkeley boys now buried in the churchyard here was captured at the crest of Pickett's charge, at the wall on Cemetery Ridge now known as ''the high-water mark of the Confederacy.'' From there Lee's army beat an honorable retreat.

It is astonishing that Disney, out of sheer stubbornness, is risking its reputation as a good corporate citizen, and is doing so to put here a project that could be put in many more suitable places. But it is not too late for Disney to learn a lesson from Lee, who is revered by the nation he tried to dismember, revered partly because he knew how to retreat and when to surrender.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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