ALPERN AT LARGE - While on vacation in the Black Hills and Yellowstone regions, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is clearly and obviously one of the "must see" attractions, although a myriad of amazing, natural wonders of the Black Hills aren't to be missed. There are several oft-raised questions for those who've seen this inspiring mountain sculpture, such as why those four men belong there, whether we've proven worthy of their leadership, and also--nearly a century after construction began--who would belong in a modern-day, expanded Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Everyone's got their own opinions, but a few Presidents of the last 80 years stand out as those who would enjoy the greatest consensus for such an honor...yet it's doubtful that George W. Bush, Barack Obama or even Mitt Romney (were he to be elected) are on the short list to be included on Mount Rushmore anytime soon. Which might, in and of itself, provide a lesson for individual Americans on how to succeed...and of the right way to aspire in our modern era.
The figures on Mount Rushmore (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt) are special individuals who each had strong visions but did not take themselves so seriously that they considered themselves much better, if any better, than their fellow Americans--and they all did had a powerful estimation of Americans. Washington and Roosevelt were, overall, beloved in their term of office, while Jefferson was respected but in the middle of a poignant if not bitter political rivalry with John Adams, and Lincoln was arguably downright hated by many on both sides of the Civil War.
Unfortunately, our current political leaders are more divisive than they were or are unifying, and exist in an atmosphere of bitter political divisions that threatens our modern nation with a Civil War that is metaphorical, if not military, in its scope. The Blue/Red division has been exacerbated, and not reduced as promised, by Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama, and the escalation of political jabs by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will be that much more painful because of this division.
It's not hard to conclude that Americans now view Mount Rushmore with a sense of longing for those four leaders, as our modern-day national deficit climbs to over $1 trillion a year and promises any resolution to be increasingly painful but necessary to perform. Furthermore, most Americans tire of both excessive spending and influence by both corporations and unions (LINK: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/news/ap/politics/2012/Jul/17/most_oppose_unlimited_corporate_campaign_spending.html), who appear to be in control over our presidents rather than the other way around.
Our modern-day presidents lack the down-to-earth and yet idealistic qualities of the "Rushmore Four": Washington chose not to be a king and insisted that others be given a chance to weigh in and preside over the new United States, despite his enormous popularity and his military prowess. Jefferson was wealthy but still believed (as per his writing in the Constitution) that all men had a right from God for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lincoln came from very humble roots, but did not shirk from a Civil War to preserve the relatively new union and put an end to slavery. Roosevelt was born into wealth but believed that all Americans should work hard, and he made sure that both the "little guy" and America's national wonders and parks deserved protection and representation.
Today we see a relative abandonment by Americans of all political persuasions to the ideals espoused by these four Presidents, who each made a profound difference in the attitudes of both Americans and non-Americans towards the United States.
The sense of relying on others to take care of our personal needs, the need to limit the input and representation of opposing arguments so long as your side wins, the willingness to grab profits but not ensure that others who worked hard don't share in these profits, and--most importantly--the forsaking of the uniqueness of our country appears to be ways of life that are an abandonment of the principles the "Rushmore Four" stood for.
So who would be the leading contenders to be added to a putative modern-day Mount Rushmore? They would be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan (with perhaps a fourth contender being Dwight Eisenhower).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) led the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, but created a Social Security system and a host of stimulus projects (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps) that reduced poverty while offering a sense of work and contributions for these projects and agencies to work. He was pro-union but opposed public sector unions. It is clearly not the fault of FDR that our Social Security system and other governmental safety net programs are being abused today, or that today's public sector union leadership has destroyed the lives of so many taxpayers and government workers. And while criticisms of FDR's policies before and during World War II are valid, he led the nation through some of its worst historical challenges.
John F. Kennedy (JFK) similarly held a sense of purpose, rejecting the anti-Semitism of his father and furthering the hope that the Presidency and political power was available to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He was willing to stare down the Soviet Union during the Cuba Missile Crisis, and while his policies in Cuba and Southeast Asia are worthy of historical review and criticism, he did make it clear that his wealthy background (as with Teddy Roosevelt) did not absolve him from hard work and representation of the common man. Most importantly, he did make it clear that Americans were supposed to serve their country, and not the other way around.
Ronald Reagan, as with FDR and JFK and the "Rushmore Four", also believed in the special, unique character and purpose of the United States, and established our nation as a worldwide beacon of hope and exemplary way of living for the rest of the world to emulate. He refused to let the United States fall into a decline, and while his domestic policies are also worthy of criticism, the economic boom during and after his term of office and his victorious end of the Cold War were as historic as any efforts on the part of FDR, JFK and Eisenhower to establish the U.S. as a worldwide symbol of freedom and democracy.
(Arguably, Eisenhower also merits a place on a modern-day Mount Rushmore because he effectively and quietly established a post-war economic plan for the country and even the world, was the first to stare down the Soviet Union, created our modern Interstate road system, and presided over what some argue is the zenith of the political, military and economic strength of the United States.)
Fast forward, however, to today: while it's always easy, if not downright impractical and/or unrealistic, to glamorize and whitewash the past while bemoaning the present, there's some validity to the notion we've turned our backs on both the original "Rushmore Four" and any deserving additional leaders who've led our country since actually stood for.
We use fear and negativity to tear apart and tear down our nation, or segments within our nation, rather than derive ways to unite our nation through a collective sense of shared commitment and hard work. We ask more from our country (and, in particular, our fellow taxpayers) than what we're willing to give it and future generations in return. Hard work and sacrifice is for suckers, and there is no shame on being on the public dole when the opportunity exists to be self-sufficient. It's all about winning and hoarding of profits if one can get away with it.
The question of what we're leaving for our children has been replaced with "what's in it for me?" Our children are force-fed the negative aspects of American history without balancing that information with the unique and different democratic principles that created and still drives our country. Even the concept of saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, or singing the National Anthem or other patriotic tunes on a regular if not daily basis, is dismissed and mocked as nerdy, passé, out of touch and old-fashioned, and otherwise irrelevant in a modern-day America that must again strive to find its identity once more.
Yet there is a sense of finality with Mount Rushmore, as well as with the memory of the three or four twentieth-century leaders who shaped American history since the carving of that mountain, that modern challenges do not and cannot overcome. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the memory of our last century aren't going away, and the ability to change our national paradigms to a more grassroots, volunteer, selfless and patriotic future still awaits us. Each new generation, with each new day, has the opportunity to strip itself of the shortcomings imposed by past and present challenges.
Perhaps the question of who should be considered a truly great President is best answered with "stop waiting for a President to save you, and instead start to save yourself". True historical figures such as the "Rushmore Four" won't be needed in a modern-day America where the big hurdles have already been overcome, and where we need to be our own personal leaders and aspiring champions.
But the arrival of the next four potential Presidents who can be debated for belonging on a modern-day Mount Rushmore still exists for each of us to look forward to, and to wonder what impacts they will have to offer a glorious and exciting twenty-first century United States of America.
(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org . He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line, which strives to get the Green Line to LAX, at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)
Vol 10 Issue 58
Pub: July 20, 2012