Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Mandelbaum once said, “Societies raise their grandest monuments to what their cultures value most highly.“
Few things create as fiery debates as do matters related to the artifacts that define a nation. In this country, the flag, Constitution, national buildings, and monuments are the holy grail, sacred assets of the American trust. And the idea of adding the bust of President Barack Obama to Mount Rushmore, whether one agrees or not, is a bold entry into that trust.
In a recent poll conducted by The College Fix, three of ten George Washington University history and political science professors polled on the question predicted that the bust of Barack Obama will join those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Professor Paul Wahlbeck, Chairman of the Political Science Department noted, “History undoubtedly will accord President Obama a special place by virtue of being the first African-American President.”
Ever since 2010 when speculation and a quiet campaign began to add Obama, voices favoring and opposing the additions have been increasingly vocal. Sometimes euphoric as if worshiping a deity. And sometimes hyper-hostile as if rejecting a demon. During a January 11, 2013 appearance on MSNBC’s Politics Nation, Al Sharpton stated his support by comparing the presidential records of Barack Obama and Theodore Roosevelt:
“How did Teddy Roosevelt get up there? What did he do to affect the future of the country?” Sharpton asked. “[Obama] stopped two wars and the whole question of finance reform on Wall Street and health care. I mean, he has done some concrete things…. The reason I raised Teddy Roosevelt is that a lot of people could say that Teddy Roosevelt was more of a character than a transformative president. I can name, literally, things that President Obama has done… Now, I’m going to say that if Teddy Roosevelt is the measure, I think it strengthens the case for President Obama.”
However, a Facebook page entitled Campaign to Put President Obama on Mt. Rushmore has recently witnessed a number of comments that vehemently oppose the idea. Some of the opposition, ironically, invokes the very racism that supporters would profess a post-racial America conquered in Obama’s [two] elections.
“I agree Obama should be on Rushmore! Hanging from a tree to honor our founding fathers cause i’m sure they would string him up, too.”
“If we’re adding criminals to Mt. Rushmore they better add Nixon then too.”
“I think he should do something good — anything good — for our country before we consider that. I mean, something besides destroying our economy and dismantling the best health care system this world has ever known. Face it: The only reason anyone would back this idiotic idea is because of the color of his skin. And that, my friends, is racism at its worst.”
“Are you kidding me? Our “great” (HA!) president doesn’t belong anywhere near any of our founding fathers”
“As someone who shares the same racial make-up as Obama I hope they never add him to the already grotesque monument. Big f**king deal if he’s half black. Black people have suffered more under him than we ever did under W. Bush. Only Reagan may have been worse overall but Obama still has 3 more years to f**k s**t up more.”
“Wrong color rock! He will never like that!”
Between the extremes, Wahlbeck offered a middle ground perspective, “[I am] reluctant to venerate political leaders while or shortly after they served.”[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”35%”]“Monuments are for the living,
not the dead.”
It remains to be seen how history will treat President Obama. However, the three prevailing ideas on the Mount Rushmore question — support, oppose, and wait — each appear to miss the wisdom of German playwright Frank Wedekind. This understanding of monuments moves the focus away from the national icon (i.e., Barack Obama) to the nation. They convey our values to those at-home and abroad, to those now living and to future generations. And in doing so, monuments cause a more Socratic probe of America, unbiased by political party dogma, race, or personal sentiments. Questions such as:
Is Mount Rushmore reserved for the most distinguished of political achievements? And if so, where does Ronald Reagan’s presidency that witnessed the end of the Cold War compare with Barack Obama’s healthcare reform?
If we are to celebrate the ongoing struggle for racial reconciliation, would the bust of Dr. Martin Lurther King, Jr. — who transcended politics, was by some accounts the most charismatic figure of the 20th century, and who paid the ultimate price — even more exemplify the ideals of freedom?
Must the nation uniformly consider a policy or set of policies “successful” in order to honor itself for their existence? After all, in the case of Lincoln, surely ending slavery was not uniformly accepted. Indeed, one might argue that this policy required of the nation its highest sacrifice, threatening its very existence.
And if America is a nation of, for, and by the people, should Mount Rushmore be extended beyond presidents (or politicians) to uniquely transformative private citizens whose lives most reflect our nation’s march to a more excellent union? After all, historian Doane Robinson, who is widely considered the brain child behind Mount Rushmore, conceived of a place where famous people — and not only presidents — are immortalized.
The Mount Rushmore conversation is significant in that it reveals our larger questions about the nation. As such, whether Obama’s bust ends up on Mount Rushmore is of lesser importance than the questions we resolve in the process of making that monumental decision.
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