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The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project wants to Gipperize the world. It’s made a start in the District.
To hear David Kralik of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project (RRLP) tell it, all of his group’s initiatives are rooted in the vox populi. Americans still love the 40th president, Kralik says, and the RRLP wants to help them show it.
For instance, if a Reagan admirer decides to count down to the 90 years and 248 days that it would take for Reagan to best John Adams as the oldest living former chief executive in the nation’s history, then it’s the RRLP that the Ron fan phones to publicize that fact. If a Gipper groupie wants Reagan’s bust in his local post office or to have a cul-de-sac named after the prez, then he shoots the RRLP an e-mail. This 4-year-old offshoot of conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform tries to help such fans make their dreams come true.
Working out of a downtown D.C. office, the RRLP aims to place a memorial to the former president in each of the nation’s 3,067 counties and to fix one notable Reagan landmark in each of its 50 statesand all the formerly communist countries. The score so far is 50 memorials and counting47 in the United States and three international tributes. The group boasts an advisory board chock-full of conservative luminaries, including U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove. The group hopes to raise $500,000 over the next few years.
No idea is too big or too small. Taking a cue from longtime American Spectator Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the RRLP proposed placing Reagan’s head on Mount Rushmore. (The National Park Service says that the existing rock can’t hold it, so the RRLP is eyeing other spots.) The group also advocates the replacement of Alexander Hamilton’s visage on the $10 bill with Reagan’s.
“The decision to place Reagan on [money] was the last request of a Republican senator of Georgia, Paul Coverdell,” Kralik observes. “He introduced [legislation supporting the idea] shortly before his death. We’re just taking up where he left off.”
There are less grandiose schemes to honor the Gipper, toonot all of them generated by the RRLP. For $5,400, for instance, you can luxuriate in the Ronald Reagan Suite at the Westin Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif., for a single night, feeding on complimentary bowls of the 40th president’s favorite jelly beans. There’s a 6-foot portrait of Reagan made out of 14,000 jelly beans in Dixon, Ill. There’s a more conventional statue of the Gipper at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“Here’s the thing,” says Kralik. “It’s not us. This is just a goal of ours. It’s not top-down, it’s bottom-up. You’d be amazed at the hundreds of suggestions we get every week. There are an awful lot of supporters. We’re just serving as a clearinghouse for people who say, ‘Hey, I have an idea for Ronald Reagan. What can I do?’ So that’s what we do. I think that there is justification to have Ronald Reagan’s name.”
Ironically, given Reagan’s attacks on big government, Washington, D.C., has been a hotbed of Gipperization, and there is a sense among critics that Reagan glorification is indeed being forced upon the city’s residents.The metropolitan-area landscape already contains Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. When the former president turned 90, in February, 27 states passed resolutions honoring him, but the District chose not to do so.
D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, for one, believes that the rush to memorialize Reagan is very “un-American” and even “Sovietish.” She argues that future generations should be the ones to judge and memorialize the 40th president.
“Democracies like our own do not rush ahead of history to memorialize their heroes, quite simply because our memorials are based on love and respect,” says Norton. “By contrast, authoritarian societies have very different traditions of early and multiple memorialseven of living figuresbecause these societies use memorials for propaganda purposes.”
Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and 2000 Green Party presidential candidate, sees considerable irony in the District’s role as a locus for Gipperization. “Ronald Reagan was a bad, cruel president with a smile,” says Nader. “His policies were consistently anti-consumer, anti-poor, and anti-environment. He did nothing for the District. He never stood up for the little person. He always shoveled billions of dollars and influence into the hands of big corporations.”
Despite the sentiments of those who agree with Norton and Nader’s assessment of Reagan and his legacy, the RRLP has had numerous successes in the District. In fact, the project’s most notable achievement thus far has been the renaming of Washington National Airport over numerous objections.
There has also been some blowback. After the issue of the airport was decided, the battle over nomenclature shifted to the replacement of Metro signage and maps at the airport’s subway station to reflect the alteration. Replacing the signs and placards would cost close to $400,000, and Metro officials have thus far balked at the project, despite threats from members of Congress to cut back funding for the agency.
Kralik is unhappy that the signs haven’t changed. “Currently, you look outside, [and] it’s still called National Airport. They haven’t changed the signs, [and] we think it’s for petty and partisan reasons,” he says. “They’ve had four years to rename it. They’ve had so many opportunities, and clearly they haven’t.” He cites stops such as “Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan” and “U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” as examples of subway stations with altered names.
Metro says that the delay is more procedure than politics. “I think that type of allegation reflects a lack of understanding of policies and procedures that we’ve had in place over our 25-year history,” says Director of Media Relations Ray Feldmann. “The policy has always been that any request for a name change had to come from the local jurisdiction in which the station is located. Not only is it a request, but [the jurisdiction] usually comes up with the money to pay for it. Arlington County government has never asked Metro to change the name.”
“I think a lot of people resent Congress imposing on Metro what we should name one of our stations,” Feldmann adds. He also points out that the fiscal year 2002 Transportation Appropriations Bill passed this summer by the House of Representatives asked for a name change, whereas the Senate version did not. Both chambers must agree on a version in conference before the measure is voted on and signed by the president.
Another RRLP attempt to honor Reagan met unexpected resistance in March, when the Bush administration opposed a plan to place a Reagan monument on an already-embattled piece of District real estate: the National Mall.
The Mall was a lightning rod for controversy earlier this year, during the efforts to place a World War II memorial at the Rainbow Pool despite aesthetic and environmental concerns raised by opponents (“All This and World War II,” 4/13). In opposing the Reagan monument, the Bush administration noted that it was Reagan himself who signed the 1986 legislation that forbade monuments to be built to people on the Mall until 25 years after the subject’s death.
Kralik is undaunted by that fact. “We just think it should happen sooner,” he says, pointing to the 50-plus years required to get memorials raised to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. The RRLP is now seeking to finesse the issue by suggesting that the Reagan memorial be combined with a memorial to the Cold War. “[America] fought a 40-year battle with the Soviet Union,” Kralik continues. “So the Cold War should [have a memorial]. What better place than to have Ronald Reagan in the center?”
There is a Plan B if the Mall doesn’t work, however. The Washington Post has reported that the RRLP is eyeing nearby Benjamin Banneker Overlook Park, in the waterfront district of Southwest. It’s a location that may well cause a ruckus as large as the airport/Metro and Mall controversies.
Kralik says that his organization is not going after the park: “We’re not pursuing [it]. [We’re] looking at the National Mall area.”
Those who have fought unsuccessfully to honor Banneker with a monument in the park named for him back in 1971 have raised a considerable fuss over the possibility of a Reagan annexation.
“There are plenty of things already named for Ronald Reagan,” says Louise Hutchinson, a Banneker-memorial advocate for the past 30 years. “All I think are noteworthy, but there are many monuments to white contributors, very few to our black people. Banneker’s contribution was for this nation’s capital city, and he should be recognized, not just for black people.”
“How can you take a site that is already named for someone else?” says Peggy Seats, founder of the Washington Interdependence Council, a nonprofit established in 1998 to memorialize Banneker, which renovated the location a few years ago. She sums it up in three words: “Power. Clout. Money.”
Seats argues that in many ways, the Banneker/Reagan race should already have been settled in favor of the 18th-century mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor of the nation’s capital.
“[Our efforts to commemorate Banneker] have not gotten the full support from the mayor’s office, the Office of Planning, or the Housing and Community Development Committee to facilitate success,” says Seats. “We’ve obtained site approval on city property, so there is no rationalization as to why they haven’t stepped forward to guarantee its success.”
Kralik says that he’s got no problem with such sentiments. In fact, they jibe with his own sentiments about his hero. “If you want to put up a memorial and it’s deemed for people who meant something in people’s lives, then you should go for it,” he says. CP