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Jewish World Review July 19, 2001/ 28 Tamuz, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Honoring Reagan's word -- WASHINGTON is a city of words and stones, creating and recreating our history. That's why the city is awash with eager high school students every spring, visiting the nation's capital for their senior trip. They come to see where and how history is made.

Washington is a city of leafy trees and gorgeous flowers as well, decorating the government buildings and memorials, enhancing the life of all those men and women weaving webs of words on Capitol Hill and at the White House. The very sight of the National Mall makes this abundantly clear, a vista stretching from the Capitol at the eastern end to the great temple to Lincoln at the western end, an evocation of a mighty republic stretching from sea to shining sea.

Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to speak to one memorable throng, many cooling their feet in the Reflection Pool as he told the nation, "I have a dream.'' It was one of those perfect moments of history, a poetic juxtaposition of word and sculpted stone set against a landscape of green lawn and blue water and sky.

The Mall actually includes the open space that runs from the White House south to the Jefferson Memorial at the Potomac, and any proposal to put anything on it is guaranteed to arouse controversy; whatever goes up has to be necessary, beautiful and deserving.

That was the story of the memorial to the veterans of World War II, who will finally, after the passage of more than a half century, be honored on the Mall. This, it seems to me, should be the last mass of marble cast on the Mall if we want to preserve the beauty and the openness of this national treasure. To put anything else there not only offends the integrity of this special place, but would detract from what is already there.

This is not an academic issue. Last year the Senate passed legislation declaring a halt to putting more memorials there. The House declined to go along. Certain conservatives want to build a memorial to Ronald Reagan (presumably after his death) smack in the middle of it.

Their reasoning is both ironic and wrongheaded. Ronald Reagan signed the Commemorative Works Act in 1986, which banned memorials on the Mall until 25 years after the death of the honoree. He's also the president who railed against big government. He's the man who, in fact, said: "When you start talking about government as 'we' instead of 'they,' you've been in office too long.'' The well-intentioned fans who are pushing the Reagan memorial are not only using "we,'' but they're dismissing the "they'' -- the Americans who want to preserve both the dignity and natural grace of the Mall.

Those of us who believe Ronald Reagan is the man who ended the Cold War when he stood up to Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, who restored pride in the values of family and faith that had been trashed by the popular culture, understand that he is a living memorial whose place in history needs no validation in marble on the Mall he wanted to protect.

Those more into stones already have the largest Federal office building in Washington, set prominently on Pennsylvania Avenue. Washington National Airport was renamed to make sure that no one forgot him. What next, a fifth face on Mount Rushmore?

Advocates of the memorial on the Mall, who think they do him honor, betray the modesty of the man and undermine the size of his accomplishments. Ronald Reagan is no Chester Alan Arthur or Millard Fillmore, who would be relegated to historical curiosity unless we hurried to make a marble man of him.

Ronald Reagan's words should be allowed to triumph over a mere idea of hauling more stone to the Mall. He more than most understood that specificity is the soul of credibility. He deliberately specified no memorials on the Mall, at least for 25 years. We can hear him now, crying "enough already.'' Let's listen to the man.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS