Too much ado about Reagan

April 27, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Talleyrand's wisdom in expressing the sensibility of conservatism -- "Above all, gentlemen, no zeal" -- is unintelligible to some profoundly unconservative conservatives who advocate madly multiplying honors for Ronald Reagan.

How many ways are there to show misunderstanding of Mr. Reagan's spirit? Let us count the zealots' ways.

Not content with seeing Mr. Reagan's name attached to Washington's National Airport and to Washington's second (to the Pentagon) largest building and to an aircraft carrier, some people want -- seriously -- some sort of Reagan honor in all 3,141 American counties. But their immediate battle -- America's greatest battles: Saratoga, Gettysburg and the National Airport Metro Station -- is to get Congress to compel administrators of the Washington-area Metro to add Mr. Reagan's name to the sign at the airport station, which now reads: "National Airport."

Those ardent to add Mr. Reagan's name to that sign say they are not -- Heaven forfend! -- scoring ideological points, they are practicing compassionate conservatism. They tell of confused travelers who, because Mr. Reagan's name is not on the sign, have not realized that the airport is that big structure adjacent to the above-ground Metro station.


Travelers too oblivious to know they are at an airport when large, clear signs say they are? They should be given those little plastic pilot wings that are issued to unaccompanied children, and taken into protective custody.

The conservatives want to get Congress to order Metro officials to spend several hundred thousand dollars to add Mr. Reagan's name to the station signs and all references to the station on maps. But usually it is liberals who, explaining the need for everyone to be supervised by liberals, assert or imply that the average American is dimwitted.

Now come conservatives, asserting the need to help Americans who do not know when they are at a clearly marked airport. Besides, Mr. Reagan had a memorable thing or two to say about bossy federal institutions meddling in local affairs.

Advocates of Reagan idolatry want to worsen the increasing clutter on Washington's Mall by putting a Reagan memorial there. One of the world's greatest public places is becoming a manifestation of the entitlement mentality, contested ground for groups claiming they are entitled to have their achievements (e.g., World War II veterans) or beliefs (Reaganites) ratified in stone on the Mall. Fortunately, in 1986, Mr. Reagan signed a law stipulating that no individual will be honored on the Mall until 25 years after his or her death.

Political freedom implies freedom from political propaganda -- from being incessantly bombarded by government-imposed symbols and messages intended to shape public consciousness in conformity with a contemporary agenda.

Such bombardment is unquestionably the aim of some Reaganite monument-mongers. They have the mentality that led to the lunatic multiplication of Lenin portraits, busts and statues throughout the Evil Empire. Very different impulses, disconnected from immediate agendas, led to the building of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, which were begun in 1848, 1915 and 1938, respectively, long after the men honored had receded from immediate partisan relevance.

Not content with turning the Mall into a battlefield for endless contention between ideological factions, they want to do the same to the currency. They advocate putting Mr. Reagan in place of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.

What would Mr. Reagan in his prime have made of the incontinent lust of a Washington-based coterie to celebrate him? That may be surmised from one of his favorite maxims: There are no limits to what can be accomplished if you do not care who gets the credit. In this, Mr. Reagan was Roman -- or at least like one Roman.

Although Cato had served the Roman Republic with distinction, no statue had been erected to him, and someone asked him why. His serene answer was that it was better to have that question asked than the question, Why have they erected a statue to Cato? No one asks such a question about Mr. Reagan, which in fact is a kind of monument to him.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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