Stop, in the name of Ronald Reagan

Subway: Officials of Washington's Metro system bicker with congressional Republicans over putting the former president's name on signs at the airport station.

April 28, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Ronald Reagan's admirers wanted to carve his face on Mount Rushmore, but engineers said the stone was too crumbly. They wanted to put Reagan on the $10 bill, but Alexander Hamilton's champions beat them back. They wanted to erect a monument to Reagan on the National Mall, but opponents reminded them that Reagan himself signed a law barring such memorials for anyone who had not been dead 25 years.

Now comes trouble for a much smaller tribute to Reagan: A subway stop at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport that local government officials refuse to emblazon with Reagan's name.

In the three years since Congress officially changed the airport's name to honor the nation's 40th president, the subway stop, signs and maps that identify it across the region's sprawling Metro rail system have continued to read simply, "National Airport."

Republican lawmakers, some of whom want the former president's name on at least as many roads and public buildings as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., accuse local officials of insulting an American hero.

But the vociferous Democrats who sit on Metro's board argue that the subway stop's name is none of Congress' business.

"Silly and mean-spirited and bad sports," conservative activist Grover Norquist calls the Metro board.

"Un-Reaganlike!" board member Dana Kauffman snaps back.

Now Republicans in Congress are threatening to withhold federal money from Metro's budget unless the subway stop is renamed. Metro officials, saying local governments would have to pay $400,000 for the name change, are simply ignoring the orders. Next week, Republicans plan to unveil a bill forcing Metro to rename the station.

Ronald Reagan's legacy is complicated in Washington. The Republican rose to national prominence in part because of his oft-declared disdain for the ingrained ways of Washington and its sprawling bureaucracy. Unlike, say, Alaska, where some folks want to name a mountain range for Reagan, this company town is more conflicted.

"Ronald Reagan isn't too popular with the majority of people around here," says Arlington, Va., County Supervisor Christopher E. Zimmerman, a Democrat and Metro board member fighting the name change.

"You're talking about a guy who became famous by knocking Washington and federal bureaucrats. Bureaucrats are the people who live here."

Republicans argue that Washington commuters have little say over the matter. In 1998, President Clinton signed a bill adding Reagan's name to the airport. Republicans, led by Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, a member of the Reagan Legacy Project that is seeking to put Reagan's name in all 3,067 American counties, accuse Metro of playing partisan politics.

"The fact is they don't like Mr. Reagan," Barr spokesman Brian Walsh says of the Metro board. "Why wouldn't you change the name of the signs at the airport when the airport's name has been changed by law?"

Metro's board contends that the name would be too long and awkward for a subway station and notes that Robert F. Kennedy's name was never added to the district's stadium stop even though the sports facility was named for the slain Democrat.

And, they argue, allowing Congress to run local government affairs sets a dangerous precedent - Reagan always railed against the idea of Washington telling local officials how to spend taxpayer money.

Republicans counter that since Reagan's name was added to the airport, Metro has ignored the airport but renamed seven other stations - including such long-winded stops as "U St/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo."

They say they are entitled to a voice in Metro's affairs because the federal government initially paid for much of the $9.4 billion system. Last year, Metro received more than 10 percent of its budget, $189 million, from the U.S. government.

Cities change the names of landmarks all the time. A month after JFK's assassination in 1963, New York's international airport dropped the name "Idlewild" to memorialize him. With time, names take on lives of their own: Republicans hope travelers to Washington one day simply will say they are flying to "Ronald Reagan" or "Reagan National."

Usually, prominent figures have been dead for years before the honoring and renaming begins. George Washington died in 1799, but the Washington Monument was not built until 1888. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt had similar waits for their Washington tributes.

Historians say it will take decades to determine how Reagan's presidency is viewed and whether the tributes are warranted: Warren G. Harding, for example, was much beloved at the time of his death, but later scholars judged him one of history's least effective presidents.

"What's amazing with Reagan is how fast this has moved and how uncritical people have been," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

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