A monumentally nutty proposal Reagan: A group of conservatives is reviving the idea of putting the former president's face on Mount Rushmore. A columnist says they have rocks in their heads.

November 29, 1998|By Marianne Means

WHEN RONALD REAGAN left the White House a decade ago, some adoring fans proposed that his face be added to the profiles of four presidents carved on the side of Mount Rushmore.

Mercifully, this nutty notion failed to catch on, Reagan's place in history being something less than secure. But the idea is back. A conservative group has appointed itself the guardian of Reagan's legacy and is crusading to put his mug on the famous South Dakota mountain and his name on buildings, bridges, roads and other miscellaneous stationary objects in every state.

The campaign was inspired by the eagerness with which the Republican-controlled Congress renamed Washington National Airport after the former president last year. The Ronald Reagan National Airport moniker is just about the only concrete achievement the current do-nothing Congress can claim.

It drives Democrats nuts to be forced to use a gateway to the nation's capital named after a conservative ideologue who was convinced that the capital was a sinister influence on American life.

"Government is the problem," Reagan said in his first inaugural address, before he embarked on eight years of slashing taxes, domestic programs and the federal role in public policy. But so be it. A traveler using the airport is not necessarily endorsing the uninformed views of the politician whose name it bears.

The chairman of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is Grover Norquist, a tax-cutting lobbyist and buddy of outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich. His campaign to spread Reagan's name throughout the land is designed to counter what he calls "an uneasy ambiguity about Reagan's achievements."

"Ambiguity" is putting it politely. Besides good things like presiding over the final phase of the Cold War, Reagan's legacy includes several Cabinet scandals, the Iran-Contra crimes, the mismanaged occupation of Lebanon in which 241 Marines were killed, harsh social policies that penalized the poor, huge tax breaks for the very rich and excessive defense spending that produced the biggest national budget deficits ever.

But Norquist figures if Reagan's name is on a highway or something else in a public space, it will automatically announce that Reagan was a great president.

Which leads us to Mount Rushmore, the rugged national monument in the desolate, sparsely populated Black Hills that draws more than two million visitors each year. The mountain's granite faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln evoke the spirit and strength that built this great nation in a unique way that bricks and mortar cannot.

History has judged Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as among our greatest presidents. Roosevelt doesn't really belong in that front rank. But sculptor Gutzon Borglum was a Roosevelt fan who had been active in the 1904 campaign, and so TR was added when work on the project began in 1927.

What do you suppose Reagan's head would represent? To heck with a balanced budget? Getting rich is the American way? Stick it to the poor? Ending the Cold War? Is that more important than ending the World War II Hot War, which Franklin Roosevelt did? Of course not. Yet FDR's head hasn't made it to the monument.

At best, it is wildly premature to think of putting Reagan on the mountain, assuming it would be technically possible to add another head without damage to the monument. He is still alive, and history has not had sufficient time to digest his record and assess his presidency.

The Postal Service will not immortalize an individual on a stamp until the person has been dead at least 10 years. That is a good rule. Political and emotional biases that are fresh during a president's lifetime should not color the long-term historical judgment of the person.

After President Kennedy's assassination, Cape Canaveral, home of the space program, was renamed Cape Kennedy. But the cape's original name dated back four centuries to the Spanish conquistadors, and residents were unhappy with the change. So Cape Kennedy reverted in 1973 to Cape Canaveral.

And the wise ones in the capital are betting that if and when the Democrats regain control on Capitol Hill, Ronald Reagan airport will once again become Washington National.

Marianne Means is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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