Push to honor Reagan builds

Homage: Conservatives want memorials to the late president spread liberally across the nation.

July 03, 2004|By Riley McDonald | Riley McDonald,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The $10 bill. The dime. Portraits in statehouses. A monument in Washington. Stamps. A mountain.

And that's just where you might one day see Ronald Reagan's face. His name could end up affixed to highways and high schools, post offices and parks across the country. Congress is considering a bill to rename the Pentagon for Reagan.

Already, more than 60 pieces of government property honor him. They include a nuclear carrier, an airport, a missile-defense test site and one of Washington's largest federal buildings. But some advocates want lots more.

"Sixty things named after Reagan doesn't even get in the ballpark," said Grover Norquist, head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, which spawned the Reagan Legacy Project. Memorials to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Norquist noted, number in the hundreds.

The legacy project, formed before Reagan's death but now the subject of heightened interest, aims to name a major structure after Reagan in every state and to install some form of memorial in each of America's more than 3,000 counties.

But the push to spread the memorializing as far and wide as possible has run into resistance from a diverse group of critics. Some liberals and presidential historians have been vocal in opposition. Quieter are some of Reagan's friends and relatives, who fret about the scope and scale of some of the proposed projects.

In the meantime, many conservatives, who regard Reagan as a political father, have stepped up their push for commemorations since Reagan's death June 5.

Among presidents, Norquist argues, Reagan - and no other - is on a par with Washington and Lincoln.

"Some people say, `Wasn't FDR a great president?' Well, he was president during an exciting time," Norquist said. "In this century, Reagan is the only president to have correctly made decisions that others wouldn't. If Carter had been elected president, there would be no end to the Soviet Union."

Some former Reagan colleagues say, though, that the bid to plaster his name as widely as possible runs counter to the Reagan personality.

"There was a sign on the desk when he was president that said, `There's no end to how much we can accomplish if we don't care who gets the credit,'" said James L. Hooley, who was a top aide to Reagan. "I think he would be slightly embarrassed and think it was a bit much."

Family members, too, have taken a guarded approach. In December, Nancy Reagan publicly opposed an effort to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt with Reagan on the dime.

"The family is quite honored, but we've always exercised caution in naming things," said Joanna Drake, a spokeswoman.

Though Nancy Reagan has not spoken publicly about the Reagan Legacy Project, some say they are far from sure she would back its goals.

"You're going to end up with some pretty ordinary kinds of things bearing his name, and I don't think that's what she wants," said James Benze, a professor at Washington Jefferson College in Pennsylvania who is writing a biography of Nancy Reagan. "I think she'd rather have a few very prestigious things associated with him."

Lewis Gould, a retired professor from the University of Texas who is an editor of biographies of first ladies, suggested the Reagan family wants to be judicious in lending its support. "Wisely, they're thinking about what's really permanent and what's overdoing it," Gould said. "You don't want to get it to the point where some late-night comedian is trying to make jokes about it."

Martin Anderson, who was a senior policy adviser to Reagan, cautioned against excess but said it was important to honor a great Republican president. "The last Republican we named something after was Abraham Lincoln," he said.

Some historians suggest it is too soon to judge whether Reagan's contributions merit such a place in history. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, urged a moratorium on any permanent government-sponsored recognition until 25 years after a historical figure's death.

"This is not a new controversy," Turley said, suggesting that some former presidents were undeservedly enshrined during an upswing in popularity after their deaths. "A president has to withstand the judgment of history before they are given a memorial."

Some proposals require a waiting period. A stamp can't be issued until the birthday after a president's death. For a memorial on the National Mall, advocates must wait 25 years, thanks to a law signed by Reagan.

But those looking to honor Reagan say he has achieved heroic status in the 15 years since his presidency ended.

Rep. Tim Knopp, an Oregon state lawmaker, plans to reintroduce a bill that would make the former president's birthday, Feb. 6, Reagan Day, a state holiday. Knopp said he would not settle for a building or a highway.

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