The sad controversies of Penn State have shown us that there is one thing politicians in Washington do right. Well, do right most of the time. Official Washington is smart enough to know what the folks at Penn State sure didn’t — you don’t build statues or monuments to people who are still alive. At Penn State, they thought it was a great idea to erect a statue of football coach Joe Paterno when he not only was still alive but still coaching. Nobody could have imagined when they dedicated the Paterno statue in 2001 that it would have to be removed in ignominy and shame, by workers hiding behind a hastily-built fence, only 11 years later.
But they should have known they were taking chances when they decided to honor somebody whose legacy was still being writ. They should have listened to Robert Shrum, who said Sunday on Meet the Press: “We shouldn’t put up statues of living people. You’re going to make yourself a hostage to fortune. And that’s what happened here.”
If they had paid attention to how Washington builds its monuments, they would have seen an abundance of caution, a willingness to let the passions of the day subside and history render its considered verdict. Just look at the edifices that dot the Mall. George Washington died in 1799, universally acclaimed as the greatest American. But it was 49 years before work began on the Washington Monument, and it was not completed until 85 years after the first president’s death.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest of the Founders, died in 1826. It was 117 years before his Memorial was dedicated. Abraham Lincoln saved the union. But he was in his grave for 57 years before he got a Monument in his name. Franklin D. Roosevelt was beloved as the president who guided the country through a Great Depression and a world war. He did get his likeness on the dime, replacing Winged Victory, while passions were strong. But that was recognition of his work on what became the March of Dimes and the battle against polio. He didn’t get a memorial for 52 years, until 1997. And those eager to honor Martin Luther King Jr. had to wait 43 years after his assassination before his statue was unveiled in West Potomac Park.
The patience is often tested, particularly when passions are strongest. A center for the performing arts had already been approved by President Dwight Eisenhower three years before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Given the slain leader’s support for the arts, it was a no-brainer to affix his name to the new center in 1971. But waiting for history has served the country well. For the most part, the United States has avoided what is commonplace in dictatorships such as Iraq and the Soviet Union, where citizens could get dizzy watching statues of Saddam, Lenin and Stalin go up and come down.
Despite the pressure of those with personal nostalgia and political agendas such as those rushing to name buildings after Ronald Reagan and build statues of him while he was alive, the American model is to wait until contemporaries are dead before taking chisel to granite. Just think of the one major exception in the capital. Is there anyone who doesn’t regret the hasty decision to name the FBI headquarters for its longtime director J. Edgar Hoover? The decision was made in 1972 only 48 hours after Hoover’s death, and long before historians began sorting through some of the less salutory aspects of the director’s tenure.
By: George E. Condon, Jr., National Journal, July 24, 2012