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Hijacking History
Grover Norquist's Reagan Legacy Project
Has its Eyes on Many Prizes

by Bill Berkowitz
June 11, 2004

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Will his face replace Alexander Hamilton, America's first treasury secretary, on the $10 bill? Or will it share half the dimes in circulation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt? Will his birthday become a national holiday? Will his likeness appear on Mt. Rushmore, alongside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt? Will every county in every state rename some public facility after him? If Grover Norquist has his way, within the next decade the image of President Ronald Wilson Reagan will be permanently stamped upon America's landscape.

By John Chuckman

On Saturday, June 5, after suffering with Alzheimer's disease for nearly a decade, President Reagan died at the age of 93. Predictably, his death ushered in a week of national mourning: The news networks were Reaganized; video tributes to the former president -- no doubt prepared years ago -- were dusted off and aired; a host of former Reagan Administration officials were trotted out to offer their softened and slanted views of the Reagan era.

In the din of chatter, little was said about the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands across the globe in the name of the Reagan Doctrine. Few former officials and pundits spoke of Reagan's support for right wing death squads in Central America, his backing of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and his lionizing of so-called Freedom Fighters in Nicaragua and Angola. The Iran/Contra scandal, while mentioned, was dismissed as an aberration as opposed to intentional administration policy.

When the public deification of President Reagan is over, when the last mourner files past his coffin, when the media turns off its spotlight, and the last pundit testifying about Reagan allowing Americans to feel "better" about being American again has gone home, there will be little time to sort out truth from fiction about the Reagan regime.

Already there has been much talk about how Reagan's death might affect the upcoming presidential election. With just about everything else going south for the Bush Administration, Team Bush will do its best to attach itself to the memory of the "great communicator." Senator Kerry's advisors will have him treading lightly on the subject; going out of his way to say the politically correct thing about the former President, and then quickly changing the subject.

For conservatives, however, this week of mourning isn't about bidding a fond farewell to the 40th President; it's a prelude to a post-mortem coronation of the "greatest president this century," as Norquist recently described him.

According to USA Today, as soon as Reagan's body is interred on Friday, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project (RRLP) will launch a campaign to have his face replace Hamilton's on the ten-dollar bill. From there, the campaign will move on to work toward naming as many buildings, schools, airports, public squares, highways, government buildings, mountains, rivers and streams as possible after the former president. By the time November rolls around, if Norquist -- the ubiquitous and powerful conservative president of Americans for Tax Reform who heads up the RRLP -- has his way, there will be dozens of pieces of legislation pending in Congress as well as state legislatures regarding the naming of various sites after Reagan.

Norquist is no latecomer to Reagan lionization. The politically and media savvy right-winger established the Washington, DC-based Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997. At the time, the group's intentions were rather modest: Have "at least one notable public landmark in each state named after the 40th president." The RRLP, Norquist declared to a congressional committee considering HR 452, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Act of 2001, is "the most influential organization aimed at promoting the legacy of the 40th President."

Six years after its founding, the RRLP already had a number of successes under its belt: In February of this year, more than 25 governors declared Reagan's birthday, February 6, Ronald Reagan Day in their states; in June 2003, the New Hampshire state legislature voted to change the name of Mount Clay -- named after Henry Clay, a congressman that was secretary of state under President John Quincy Adams -- to Mount Reagan, even though the federal government wouldn't recognize the name change until five years after Reagan's death; the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is located in the heart of downtown District of Columbia not all that far from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport; in the summer of 2002, the city of Dixon, Illinois -- Reagan's home town -- named a portion of Hennepin Avenue "Reagan Way"; and in October 2000, the Marshall Islands got on board with the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.

And, in one of those "Art imitates Life" moments that often wind up as "Life imitating Art," the work of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project was featured in a March 2003 episode of The Simpsons. "I feel like we have come of age!" Norquist said at the time. "To be featured on The Simpsons means our movement has reached critical mass."

In the episode, Crusty the Clown decides to run for Congress -- representing Springfield, the hometown of the Simpson clan. Before Team Crusty was established, the scene switched to a "smoke-filled room" where a number of local GOP politicos were gathered:

Mr. Burns: Welcome, fellow Republicans. To start with the old business, Brother Hibbard will read a report on our efforts to re-name everything after Ronald Reagan.

Dr. Hibbard: All Millard Fillmore schools are now Ronald Reagans. The Mississippi River is now the Mississippi Reagan.

Dracula: (Points to Frankenstein, seated next to him) And my good friend, Frankenstein, is now Franken-Reagan. Bleeeh!

Mr. Burns: Ehhhhxcellent...

In a June 6 Washington Post question-and-answer session on Reagan's legacy, Norquist suggested the public get in touch with their congressional representatives "and urge them to place Ronald Reagan on the $10 bill as well as on half of dimes" (In the spirit of bipartisanship, Norquist allowed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's face could remain on the other half.) "I would also encourage citizens to communicate with their state legislators so that this year we name something significant after President Reagan in all 50 states and each of the 3000 plus counties in America."

Norquist's ten-spot initiative, introduced by Sen. Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), isn't the only one that will be considered by Congress: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R- Ca.) said he will introduce legislation replacing former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-Fla.), will introduce a bill to place the likeness of Reagan on the half-dollar coin, replacing John F. Kennedy. The right wing bandwagon is up and rolling. Even historic accuracy will have a tough time slowing it down.

Although I've never been a big fan of Ron or Nancy Reagan, I do want to give the president's wife props on several accounts: She stood by his side during his darkest days with Alzheimer's disease; she stood up to conservative opportunists aiming to seize control over the Reagan name by implanting it on a new right-wing university; and she is standing with those suffering from serious diseases by becoming an outspoken advocate for greater embryonic stem cell research. Nancy's continued dedication to that cause has the makings of the soundest memorial to her husband.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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