How could the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans provide us a lesson about memorials dedicated to Ronald Reagan?
Hang on to that thought about The Gipper for a moment. Let’s look at the Civil War lesson first.
For years, public sentiment has questioned the appropriateness of an obelisk honoring the killing of police officers by white supremacists in the Crescent City during the turbulent post-Civil War period as well as statues depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Pierre Beauregard. Finally, there is action to remove these symbols of treason that date from the most troubled period of our nation’s history.
“We will no longer allow the Confederacy to literally be put on a pedestal in the heart of our city,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told his constituents.
Mayor Landrieu provided a needed lesson for his fellow citizens that Robert E. Lee never set foot in New Orleans, as Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post put it succinctly:
Noting that the Lee statue is “on the most prominent space” in his city, Landrieu put the monument’s location into perspective. “It would be like putting King George where the Washington Memorial is or Robert E. Lee where Lincoln is,” he said with a chuckle.
A review last year by The Atlantic found that there are still more than 1,500 memorials dedicated to Confederates in locations far and wide.
For all the high-profile removals, there remains a stunning number of Confederate Civil War monuments, memorials, and namesakes in public spaces around the country, as a new inventory taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center makes clear.
While things might be somewhat tense in the Big Easy as the workers removing the first monument were protected by police, the United States Army has the enduring legacy of ten of its bases being named after those who committed treason by their actions in the Civil War. The imbroglio in New Orleans will only serve to heighten the discussion about the appropriateness of having American bases named after people who were disloyal to their country.
In Alabama, home of George Wallace, the topic of the appropriateness of Confederate monuments has apparently been resolved as the result of a three-hour debate in the legislature. There will be no action to remove any Confederate statues, since leaders decided that such memorials represent the heritage of the state. The fact that the state’s heritage is one of slavery and disunion is, however, another matter.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s native son, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement official, has the distinction of being named for both the Confederate President and the rebel general who led the bombardment of Fort Sumter, which started the Civil War. Although we shouldn’t form hard and fast opinions about people based solely on their given name(s), there is no doubt that Sessions, named for two traitors whose monuments are about to be removed from public view in New Orleans, remains one of the most unpopular members of Trump’s cabinet of Wall Street oligarchs and otherwise conflicted individuals. With Sessions, however, many believe that his behavior since birth has fueled suspicions that there might be something revealing about his name after all.
Which gets us back to the subject of Ronald Reagan and monuments.
In 1997, Grover Norquist, who is probably best known as the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, founded the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. The stated purpose of the organization is to establish memorials to Reagan that will be placed in all 3,140 counties in the United States. Norquist is also known for making the assertion that “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
How ironic that the guy who wants to radically reduce the size of government is hell bent on inflating the legacy of Reagan well beyond what our memory of his achievements might warrant.
The very idea of ubiquitous, heroic-looking statues in the public square, whether in Jackson Square in New Orleans or in every county in the United States, gave me pause more than thirty years ago, when I had the opportunity to study Chinese civilization at universities in Beijing and Shanghai. The imposing image of Chairman Mao Zedong was everywhere, and my camera came in handy to photograph many of these statues. Here are two examples, one in Beijing and the other found in Shanghai.
It was that remembrance of China and its Great Helmsman planted nearly everywhere that made me immediately opposed to the very idea and singular goal of Grover Norquist’s Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. But there is a prominent voice who also strongly opposes the march to place Reagan’s image across the landscape.
George Will, the eminent conservative and Reagan disciple, strongly opposes the very purpose of the Legacy Project. In fact, Will believes that the excessive placement of statues, plaques and other types of monuments honoring one person, an orchestrated frenzy directed by Norquist and others to imprint Saint Ronald in at least 3,140 locations
“… is the spirit of Leninism and Saddam Husseinism, and all the other countries in which the maximum leader smears his image all over the place in his name.”
It has not been that long since we saw the statues of the maximum leader Lenin being removed from their pedestals in newly-independent Eastern European countries, and any reminder of that exercise can prove helpful as any society considers memorializing an individual.
Come to think of it, I need to return to the People’s Republic of China to see if the plethora of Chairman Mao statues that I photographed during my Fulbright period are still there, steering the proper course, as The Great Helmsman was known to do.
Meanwhile, as the Confederate statues come down in New Orleans and others question the need for imposing monuments, maybe there is a learning here with a name like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. The two individuals that his family has honored for generations with a name choice were principals in a war that ultimately killed more than 600,000 people, and it has taken 150 years for some people to reevaluate the less exalted place these men should have in our consciousness.
Understandably, there is something about certain names as well as statues carved in stone that provide for lively discussion.
In that vein, regardless of our politics, we should question the appropriateness of having a statue or monument dedicated to Ronald Reagan in every county in our nation because by doing so, those images at the very least will tend to crowd out the memory of other deserving people, whether other presidents or even uncommon citizens, who have also made notable contributions to this nation.
But knowing the ideologue that is Grover Norquist, that is exactly the purpose of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. How ironic it is for conservatives to credit Reagan for bringing down the Berlin Wall and speeding the collapse of the Soviet Union while they are also creating a new version of Leninist-like adulation and a cult of personality around him.
Don’t quote me on that. No, attribute that to none other than George Will.
In retrospect, there had to be a 19th century version of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, with the likes of Monument Avenue in Richmond and the ubiquitous Lee Highways we come across in our travels south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And to think that this enterprise must have been in place at the time of Lee’s death, just months after Lenin’s birth.
But thanks to Mayor Landrieu, Marse Robert’s exalted state, as well as his Rebel friends, appears to be coming to an end, at the very time that the subject of treason associated with the 2016 Trump campaign, is the focus on hearings by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that are trying to examine possible collusion between the Trump campaign and a hostile foreign power. While the centuries change, it is another question as to whether the definition of treason has also changed.
On that one, I don’t think so.
All of this should provide both reflection as well as pause when we consider an enterprise like the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project and the questions that it generates. With this examination, the subject is not treason, as is the case in New Orleans and elsewhere, but the very appropriateness of the undertaking. George Will remains the best authority to consult with when trying to answer this question.
As the drama continues to play out in New Orleans, who knows where attention will be focused next in the examination of the past. Indeed, the past is but prologue to what lies ahead.
We can expect more controversy when it comes to Monument Avenue, New Orleans, and wherever else an organization comes together for the purpose of planting a figure of the past for those in the present to view and supposedly honor. As William Faulkner, that distinguished son of the South, put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.