June 10, 2004,
Should Ronald Reagan be on Mount Rushmore?
An NR editor asked me to opine briefly on that question. I say no: Reagan should not be on Mount Rushmore. I say this with some diffidence, as I know the late president means a very great deal to most of my colleagues much more than, in all honesty, he does to me. That is not to slight Reagan in any way, or to express skepticism as to his achievements. It is only to record the fact that I can't claim any personal acquaintance with Reagan, was not in the U.S. for most of his presidency, and did not have my own conservatism formed by his presence in the way so many of my colleagues did. I can therefore understand why many of them would like to see the Great Communicator up there; it is just that I myself take a cooler, more distant view.
In the first place, it is too soon to speak of the thing. The latest president among the four on Mount Rushmore is Theodore Roosevelt. The TR head was dedicated on July 2, 1939. That was over 30 years after TR stepped down from the presidency, and over 20 years after his death. TR's inclusion in the monument seems to have been announced in August 1925, so those "30 years" and "20 years" can be reduced to 16 and six, respectively, if you date to conception instead of birth. Equivalent periods for Ronald Reagan would be: to conception, 2005 and 2010; to birth, 2019 and 2024. Any way you cut it, it's too soon. And as a matter of fact, I think they jumped the gun on TR. With these great figures of history, you need to give the dust a few decades to settle before you can see the man in perspective. Let's revisit the issue, cautiously, on Reagan's centenary in 2011.
Even then, I think I'd be opposed. Mount Rushmore is a work of art. I don't say it's a great work of art, like Chartres Cathedral or Constable's Haywain. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't I offer no opinion. People travel great distances to see it, though, and generally admire it when they arrive. That is sufficient qualification for my argument.
Mount Rushmore is also a national icon. People who have no interest at all in aesthetics people who would never voluntarily go to see Chartres or Constable, and probably would not be impressed by them will still travel great distances to see Mount Rushmore, and will still admire it when they arrive. The admiration in this case is for the sculptor's achievement in making, out of raw stone and on a wonderful scale, an image that appeals to their feelings of love for, and pride in, their country.
I don't say that these are utterly disjointed things. Most of us will respond to Mount Rushmore both esthetically and patriotically, I should think, though the mix will be different for different people. In any case, the monument's status as both artwork and emblem imposes certain responsibilities on us mainly the responsibility to look after it, and not to mess around with it in ways that diminish its power.
Now, a fundamental principle of art is balance. A work of art should possess some inner symmetry. I don't mean the crude same-both-sides symmetry of a Rorschach blot; I mean that it should direct appropriate quantities of our attention to appropriate places. If it fails to do that, we sense intuitively that something's wrong with it. Choral singing is very beautiful; but an opera that gave us too much of the chorus and not enough of individual voices would be out of balance. It would be a poor opera.
I find Mount Rushmore pleasing because it satisfies this basic aesthetic criterion, and furthermore satisfies it in a way that maximizes the monument's patriotic appeal. The balance in this case is in the portion of the sculpture given over to various aspects of the American national character.
Look: Here we have George Washington, the citizen-soldier, the embodiment of republican virtue and gravity. Then we have Thomas Jefferson: thinker, writer, Founder (yes, yes, of course Washington was a Founder too but on a word-association test with "Founder," it is Jefferson that first leaps to mind), and apostle of human liberty. Next, Abraham Lincoln, the great orator and moralist, who came out of the wild frontier to save the Union and free the slaves. Finally there is TR, whose energy and optimism brought this country to the attention of the whole world, and signaled the swelling wealth and confidence that made us the one true Great Power of the 20th century, to the benefit of all mankind.
That, for me, pretty much sums up the U.S.A. Virtue and gravity; independence and liberty; unity and justice; energy and optimism. Have not other presidents likewise embodied the national character in similar, if perhaps lesser ways? Yes, of course they have. In the matter of energy, I am not sure that even TR was a match for Andy Jackson. Optimism? FDR is hard to beat on that one. Virtue and gravity? Eisenhower, Coolidge. Unity? Polk. Justice? I can't think of any president even close to Lincoln in this category, but I suppose liberals (we're talking about a national monument here, and they are entitled to be heard) might vote for Kennedy, LBJ, or even Wilson.
And is not Ronald Reagan up there with all of them? Was it not Reagan who understood, at a time when it sorely needed understanding, that the growing power of the federal government was a threat to liberty? Did he not lift up the national spirits with his sunny optimism? Did ever a president match the gravity of his words to the hour as well as Reagan did in his Challenger speech? Yes, yes, and yes, and many more yeses too. I am only saying that all these facets of our national character are already sufficiently well represented on Mount Rushmore, and that to add the 40th president would upset the balance, would over-egg the pudding.
Let's mourn this great man, who broke the confidence of the Soviet tyranny by wielding his own confidence, and who energized and emboldened an entire generation of conservative Americans. Let's remember his geniality and humor, the impression he always gave how depressingly many presidents fail this test! of being perfectly happy with who he was, just the way he was. Let's hope that the United States can still produce Ronald Reagans to remind us of what's important, confound our enemies, and cheer us up. But let's not get carried away to the degree that we make dramatic, hasty changes to a treasured national monument that it is our duty to conserve. We are, after all, conservatives.