Reagan legacy needs more perspective

When I was a lad, my family spent a couple of summer vacations at a pleasant lake in central Texas called Granite Shoals. But in 1965, during the prime of my boyhood, it was renamed for a local product who had risen to the White House — Lyndon Johnson. It became Lake LBJ.

From a distinctive, well-loved name that evoked the natural terrain of the region to a charmless label advertising a major politician — it wasn’t my idea of progress. The change had the odd effect of not only increasing my dislike of Johnson but reducing my affection for the lake.

Disciples of Ronald Reagan might consider that before proceeding with their drive to put his name or face on anything they can think of. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project has the goal of “naming at least one notable public landmark in each state and all 3,067 counties after the 40th president.”

Last week, there was a slew of other proposals to honor him. Among them: replacing Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, John Kennedy on the 50-cent piece, Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill or Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Other ideas include naming the Pentagon building after him and even putting his visage on Mount Rushmore. Some suggestions have already been adopted: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich quickly named a highway after Reagan.

But there are lots of sound conservative reasons to resist the demands. One is that restraint is a virtue. Not everything worth doing is worth overdoing. At some point, an admirable impulse becomes an unhealthy mania.

Another reason for delay is that a tribute should be proportionate to the stature of the person being honored. But accurately judging a president’s achievements requires the perspective that comes only with time.

Acting in haste often means acting unwisely. Not many historians would say Kennedy deserves more recognition than John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson or Harry Truman. But after Kennedy’s assassination, sentiment got the better of us.

Sometimes good sense eventually prevailed: Cape Canaveral, NASA’s launch site, was renamed for Kennedy just six days after his death, but 10 years later, local residents managed to restore the original, 400-year-old name. Unfortunately, the hauntingly titled Idlewild Airport in New York became John F. Kennedy International Airport, and JFK it remains.

Even if Reagan is more deserving of honors than Johnson or Kennedy, which I think he is, what’s the rush? His name has already been attached to more than 60 things, including an aircraft carrier and the main airport in the nation’s capital, to assure he won’t be forgotten. If he looks as important in 2014 as he does today, or more so, Americans will find ways to give him his due.

The policy here should follow the wisdom of the U.S. Postal Service, which bars commemorative stamps for anyone until he or she has been dead for 10 years. The only exception is presidents — and even they can’t be honored until their first birthday after they die.

What would Reagan do? Well, he signed a law barring monuments on the National Mall until 25 years after the honoree’s demise.

Even the most partisan Republican can hardly claim that Reagan is important enough to usurp FDR, whose imprint surpasses that of any other 20th-century president. In fact, liberals could argue that one of Reagan’s chief accomplishments was preserving all the New Deal programs that conservatives once hoped to dismantle. Conservatives might respond that a large chunk of the federal budget could be seen as an extravagant monument to FDR.

It would be a shame to evict Alexander Hamilton from one of his few visible perches. Hamilton, who is often overlooked today, played a central role in creating the Constitution, giving shape to the presidency under George Washington and erecting the framework for a free economy. His latest biographer, Ron Chernow, says Hamilton was probably “the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency.” Reagan might gag at dissing the patron saint of American capitalism.

Some of the proposals answer a question nobody asked. The Pentagon needs a new name like the Sistine Chapel needs a new ceiling. Mount Rushmore is also perfect the way it is. Reaganites should not have to be told of the conservative maxim: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

At the moment, they think it’s a great idea to use every means to pay tribute to an accomplished two-term president who was beloved by many. They might keep in mind that whatever they do for Reagan may someday be done for Bill Clinton.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.