4/26/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--``Surtout, Messieurs, point de zele,'' said Talleyrand,
expressing the sensibility of conservatism. His wisdom--``Above all,
gentlemen, no zeal''--is unintelligible to some profoundly unconservative
conservatives who advocate madly multiplying honors for Ronald Reagan.
How many ways are there to show misunderstanding of Reagan's spirit?
Let us count the zealots' ways.
Not content with seeing Reagan's name attached to Washington's
National Airport and to Washington's second (to the Pentagon) largest
building and to an aircraft carrier, some people want--seriously--some sort
of Reagan honor in all 3,141 American counties. But their immediate
battle--America's greatest battles: Saratoga, Gettysburg, and the National
Airport Metro Station--is to get Congress to compel administrators of the
Washington area Metro to add Reagan's name to the sign at the airport
station, which now reads: ``National Airport.''
Those ardent to add Reagan's name to that sign say they are
not--Heaven forfend!--scoring ideological points, they are practicing
compassionate conservatism. They tell of confused travelers who, because
Reagan's name is not on the sign, have not realized that the airport is
that big structure adjacent to the above-ground Metro station.
Please. Travelers too oblivious to know they are at an airport when
large, clear signs say they are? They should be given those little plastic
pilot wings that are issued to unaccompanied children, and taken into
protective custody. The conservatives want to get Congress to order Metro
officials to spend several hundred thousand dollars to add Reagan's name to
the station signs and all references to the station on maps. But usually it
is (BEG ITAL)liberals who, explaining the need for everyone to be
supervised by liberals, assert or imply that the average American is
dimwitted. Now come conservatives, asserting the need to help Americans who
do not know when they are at a clearly marked airport. Besides, Reagan had
a memorable thing or two to say about bossy federal institutions meddling
in local affairs.
Advocates of Reagan idolatry want to worsen the increasing clutter on
Washington's Mall by putting a Reagan memorial there. One of the world's
greatest public places is becoming a manifestation of the entitlement
mentality, contested ground for groups claiming they are entitled to have
their achievements (e.g., World War II veterans) or beliefs (Reaganites)
ratified in stone on the Mall. Fortunately, in 1986, Reagan signed a law
stipulating that no individual will be honored on the Mall until 25 years
after his or her death.
Political freedom implies freedom from political propaganda--from
being incessantly bombarded by government-imposed symbols and messages
intended to shape public consciousness in conformity with a contemporary
agenda. Such bombardment is unquestionably the aim of some Reaganite
monument-mongers. They have the mentality that led to the lunatic
multiplication of Lenin portraits, busts and statues throughout the Evil
Empire. Very different impulses, disconnected from immediate agendas, led
to the building of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the
Jefferson Memorial, which were begun in 1848, 1915 and 1938 respectively,
long after the men honored had receded from immediate partisan relevance.
Not content with turning the Mall into a battlefield for endless
contention between ideological factions, they want to do the same to the
currency. They advocate putting Reagan in place of Alexander Hamilton on
the $10 bill. But Hamilton may already be the Founder least sufficiently
honored with public memorials. More than any other Founder, he imagined
America's future as an industrious, entrepreneurial nation of vigor,
strength, prosperity, growth and social mobility--that is, the America
Reagan's misguided worshipers are guilty of ``value subtraction.''
Economists used that concept to denote one of the miracles of Soviet
communism: that system could take leather, cloth, rubber and thread and
produce shoes worth less than the materials of which the shoes were made.
Reagan's idolaters are achieving something similar by their mishandling of
the elements of his significance, not least of all his modesty suited to
the leader of a republic.
What would Reagan in his prime have made of the incontinent lust of a
Washington-based coterie to celebrate him? That may be surmised from one of
his favorite maxims: There are no limits to what can be accomplished if you
do not care who gets the credit. In this, Reagan was Roman--or at least
like one Roman.
Although Cato had served the Roman Republic with distinction, no
statue had been erected to him, and someone asked him why. His serene
answer was that it was better to have that question asked than the
question, Why (BEG ITAL)have they erected a statue to Cato? No
one asks such a question about Reagan, which in fact is a kind of monument