THE DEBATE over whether the new FDR Memorial in Washington should include Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair is an example of Madisonian interest group politics run amok, the trivial driving out the essential.
FDR, a symbol of 20th century America at its best, belongs on Mount Rushmore, not in a wheelchair. To save the day we must, for the second time this century, turn to the Gutzon Borglum model of civic action.
Mount Rushmore, unlike the static monuments typically raised in the nation's capital, is a work in progress, a running chronicle of the American experience. Like a scrapbook, each of the four Rushmore presidents stand for a distinct era in America's
history. Free from the bickering of national politics, Mount Rushmore was designed in the 1920s by one man, sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
Initially supported by private donations, Borglum also selected the 5,725-foot-high, smooth-grained granite site and began work 1927. By February, 1941, funding for the project ran out and Borglum himself died a month later. His son finished the work. Time has passed, the nation has moved on and historically Mount Rushmore is now 80 years out of date.
To Borglum, George Washington symbolized the nation's foundation, Thomas Jefferson its expansion westward, and Abraham Lincoln a lasting reminder of the permanence of our republic. In Theodore Roosevelt Borglum saw America's nascent development in domestic and foreign affairs. Today, however, TR signifies little more than a preface to our actual development abroad and at home this century.
Collectively, these four men lived between 1732 and 1919. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were products of the 18th century, while Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt span the 19th and the early 20th centuries. TR died in 1919, and there the first Rushmore installment ends.
To bring Mount Rushmore up to date, an eight-decade historical gap must be closed. Using the Borglum model, a second sculptor should be hired to first capture in a few words the defining characteristics of 20th century America. Then, that person must select one or two icons to symbolize those characteristics.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s recent poll of American historians found only three presidents deserving of the title "great." Of these, only FDR is not now on Mount Rushmore. Of the "near great" 20th century presidents, only two -- Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman -- are not found on Mount Rushmore.
If, for example, the next sculptor decides 20th century America is best remembered as "the defender of democracy," a president must then be selected to symbolize that virtue. I suspect Franklin Roosevelt is a shoo-in.
What to do? These are fiscally troubled times, talk of big government is not chic, and neither the president nor the Congress is likely to trust a lone artisan to make politically sensitive decisions -- as Borglum once did. Today tough decisions in Washington are handed off to carefully selected, bipartisan commissions.
But the recent brouhaha over the wheelchair suggests a cover-all-the-bases, decision-by-committee approach does not always make sense. For some civic tasks a single, wise humanitarian is the way to go.
Interest group politics will no doubt prevail inside the beltway. So be it.
But in South Dakota, where the air is fresh and clear thoughts are still possible, it just might be possible to build a timeless memorial to FDR and one that reflects his essence, not the social or political mood of the moment.
Ronald Fraser is a writer in Washington.
Pub Date: 7/11/97