Win one for the Gipper? Hell, try winning 3,067 for the Gipper. That’s the goal of a group of a powerful group of Ronald Reagan fans who aim to see their hero’s name displayed on at least one public landmark in every county in the United States.
A conservative pipe dream? The intrepid members of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project don’t think so. Launched in 1997 as a unit of hard-line antitax lobby Americans for Tax Reform, the project’s board of advisers reads like a who’s who of conservatives; it includes, among others, staunch GOP activist Grover Norquist, supply-sider Jack Kemp, and Eagle Forum chief Phyllis Schlafly. To this crew, the Great Communicator is the man who almost singlehandedly saved us from the Evil Soviet Empire, made Americans proud again, and put the nation on the road to prosperity through tax cuts that helped the poor by helping the rich help themselves.
Buoyed by an early success in having Washington National Airport renamed in Reagan’s honor in 1998, the project started thinking big. In short order, they convinced Florida legislators to rename a state turnpike. From there, it was a logical step to the push for a Reagan memorial just about everywhere. “We want to create a tangible legacy so that 30 or 40 years from now, someone who may never have heard of Reagan will be forced to ask himself, ‘Who was this man to have so many things named after him?'” explains 29-year-old lobbyist Michael Kamburowski, who recently stepped down as the Reagan Legacy Project’s executive director.
So far, the efforts range from pedestrian — office buildings, city streets, conservative fellowships — to appropriately martial: A nuclear aircraft carrier will be christened in Reagan’s honor this weekend, and a ballistic missile test site is slated to be named for a president who sent US military spending skyrocketing during the ’80s. The island nation of Grenada — not quite a US county, but close enough — has issued a commemorative Reagan stamp collection. And the former actor, once disparaged as the “nuclear cowboy,” is now cast in bronze at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The namesakes currently total just 38 — or 39, if you include the fact that Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington named her son Reagan.
Is a Reagan in every county a realistic goal? Kamburowski thinks so — even in places like San Francisco, where Reagan is widely remembered as the president who refused to publicly utter the word “AIDS” until well into his second term, by which time thousands of Americans had died of the disease.
In any case, the Gipper’s fans are currently aiming for loftier targets than a Ronald Reagan Commemorative Sourdough Roll. National Review editor William F. Buckley tells anyone who’ll listen that Ronald Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore. Recently deceased Legacy Project ally Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) was preparing a bill to put Reagan’s cheery mug on the $10 bill. In September, the House resources committee passed a measure to place a Reagan presidential memorial on the National Mall in Washington. Though the Coverdell proposal is on hold for the moment and the Washington Mall bill is in committee, Reagan’s followers hope to renew their momentum soon enough. “I personally think he’s worthy of a monument when he dies,” says Kamburowski. “It may take 15 to 20 years [to complete], but as long as it happens, I’m happy.”
Dedicating a Mall monument to a president within a couple of decades after he leaves office would be unprecedented. It took Congress more than a century to grant a memorial to Thomas Jefferson; Abe Lincoln got the green light 45 years after his assassination. FDR’s memorial was approved 14 years after his death and just dedicated in 1997. Only George Washington had a federal memorial approved during his lifetime, and it didn’t break ground until nearly 50 years post-mortem.
Compared to these American icons, Reagan’s contribution to history is rather more controversial. Indeed, it was the Gipper’s ho-hum performance in a 1996 survey of historians that apparently triggered the right’s recent zeal to enthrone him in the public eye. It was in that year that presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The New York Times Magazine, asked 30 academic colleagues and a pair of politicians to rank all US presidents, and when conservatives saw their undisputed hero languishing in the “average” column, they were aghast. Appearing on the heels of Clinton’s landslide victory over Bob Dole, the Schlesinger article seemed a slap in the face, a challenge to the GOP to stake its claim on recent history.
The charge was led by the Heritage Foundation — a conservative think tank that helped devise the Republican Contract with America. In the March 1997 issue of the foundation’s magazine Policy Review, the editors charged that Schlesinger’s survey was stacked with liberals and New Deal sympathizers, and presented opinions from authors more appreciative of the Gipper. (The 40th president has always fared better with the general public than with the pointyheads: In a recent Gallup poll, respondents rated Ronald Reagan as the greatest American president, beating out second-place John F. Kennedy and third-place Abraham Lincoln.)
Two issues later, for its 20th anniversary, Policy Review ran a followup cover story: “Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?” For its centerpiece, the magazine invited soul-searching by prominent Reagan acolytes including senators Phil Gramm and Trent Lott, representatives Christopher Cox, and Dick Armey, then-Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, and Grover Norquist. Soon after the cover story appeared, Norquist launched the Reagan Legacy Project as an offshoot of Americans for Tax Reform, which he had founded a decade earlier to further Reagan’s fiscal policies.
Of all the project’s dedications so far, perhaps the most telling occurred last year, with the opening of the 92-mile Ronald Reagan Trail in Illinois. To celebrate the event, the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. donated a six-foot-tall portrait of Reagan rendered entirely from 14,000 jelly beans, the Gipper’s favorite candy. It now hangs in a museum in Reagan’s boyhood hometown of Dixon — a fitting tribute for a leader whose public image promises to become far sweeter than reality.