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Political Animal

Quiet Symbols

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/8/2003

People outside the beltway rarely get a better view of Our Nation's Capitol than through the eye of Hollywood. Any number of movies purport to show "the real Washington," and the TV show The West Wing gives many more what they think is an idea of how the corridors of power hum with energy.

Your friendly Political Animal is a former congressional staffer as well as a former staffer of the Executive Office of the President. He is constantly asked, "Does it really look like that?" when the subject of The West Wing comes up.

Sadly, the answer is, "No, not really." Outside of the main hallways of the Old Executive Office Building, that grand, gray, pigeon-poop-stained Second Empire edifice that sits just to the west of the White House, there are very few places in the complex (the "campus," as it is known) where three people can walk abreast while talking about Matters Important to the Free World. And all that fancy indirect lighting is a crock, too.

The movie Dave, which recently got a number of airings on cable, probably features some of the most realistic shots of the Oval Office and the view from the Truman Balcony (the south-side second floor of the main building that gets so convincingly vaporized in Independence Day) that you'll find on screen. One of the most amazing shots in Dave is when Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver stand on the Truman Balcony and look out toward the Mall; you can see past them to the cut in the trees made so that there is a perfect view of the Jefferson Memorial--exactly as it would be if you were standing on the real balcony itself.

One truism of the symbols of Washington is that the wishes of presidents, even after their deaths, are ignored. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of our greatest presidents, always stated that if a monument was ever built in his honor, it should be no bigger than his desk. So at the northwest corner of the National Archives building, shaded by some trees on the lawn, stands a single block of granite the size of the presidential desk used by FDR.

Apparently, however, that simple block of granite wasn't enough for the politicians of the 1990s, so in 1997 a newer, larger memorial to the nation's 32nd president was dedicated along the cherry-tree walk next to the Tidal Basin across from the Jefferson Memorial. It features stone waterfalls, a "room" for each of the four terms Roosevelt served, and his memorable phrases etched into the brownish stone.

But even this isn't the ne plus ultra of memorial symbolism. In what has to be a milestone in effrontery, political activist Grover Norquist and his Ronald Reagan Legacy Project have made it a goal to get something named for Reagan in each of the 3,067 counties in the United States, to have him honored in former communist countries, and to have him replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.

Let's see--Hamilton was an author of the Constitution, an author of The Federalist Papers, our first Treasury secretary, and a Founding Father of the United States. Ronald Reagan ran up a $3 trillion debt and told the head of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Apparently, it's no contest. Fortunately for Teddy Roosevelt, Mount Rushmore is too unstable for Norquist's other idea--to have Reagan replace the 26th president on that national monument, which would have been an ironic twist given how under Roosevelt corporations were brought around to the will of the people, and under Reagan it was the other way around.

The latest change to the monumental scenery of the Washington area is a little more disturbing. In 1995, after the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, the Clinton administration shut off traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Later, special automated in-ground barricades were built into the street at each end of the 1600 block that rise up and down. Nevertheless, visitors can still see the majesty of the White House through the wrought-iron fencing.

However, at the other end of the avenue, a fence has risen following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is ugly, opaque, cream-colored, and looks remarkably like aluminum siding. It blocks off the view of the magnificent lawn surrounding the building where America's laws are made. And with it, it seems a transformation is complete.

We are a nation that has prided itself on its freedoms, its openness, its relief from oppression. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," the poem by Emma Lazarus beseeches from the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But now, we hold citizens incarcerated without representation or due process of law. We seek to eavesdrop on our own citizens in the name of national security. Our lawmakers grant the government far-reaching powers into our lives in order to "safeguard our freedoms." Our leaders hide behind giant opaque walls, over which the symbol of our nation's subjugation of the rule of men to the rule of law is now only partially visible, and only from a distance--like the Kremlin of old.

It has been said, "When fascism comes to America, it will be called anti-Fascism." Maybe this won't be the case. But our symbols have already spoken.

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