Kathleen Parker: A truly monumental mistake

October 7, 2013 

Losing a hard-fought battle confers no dishonor, but losing a badly chosen battle is embarrassing.

And then there's ridiculous.

Into the latter category goes the decision to close the nation's monuments to make sure the government shutdown strikes the hearts of all The American People, whose constant invocation by pandering politicians fills one with self-loathing. (Who wants to be an "American People" given the quality of our spokesfolksen?)

Then again, ridiculous is perhaps too generous a word. Closing the monuments, especially the World War II Memorial, can be reduced, fittingly, to a single syllable: Dumb. It is fitting because the seated patron of the Mall, Abraham Lincoln, was famously monosyllabic. In trivia you can use, more than 70 percent of the words in the Gettysburg Address are of one syllable.

In more recent history, when a group of World War II veterans recently faced barriers blocking entry to the memorial -- an open space requiring not so much as an attendant -- these elderly warriors took a page from their Normandy playbook and stormed the barricades.

Can there be an image more inspiring than members of this venerable club, whose living roll declines each day by about 640, pushing their way through flimsy, useless, pointless barriers to roam among pillars erected to their heroism? What was Washington thinking?

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

President Obama, whose grandfather was a World War II veteran, might have known better. We may have to close down the government, he could have said, but don't touch the monuments.

Instead, the Office of Management and Budget ordered the barricades.

That'll show 'em.

Among the many reasons this was so clumsy, one stands out starkly: It isn't as though the WWII guys can always come back another day. All are in their late 80s and early 90s and time is of the essence. Moreover, most plan these trips well in advance at considerable expense.

Thanks to the monument liberators, Washington officials were forced to rethink their decision and removed the barriers. The American People are now free to roam their public spaces in remembrance of sacrifices beyond most imaginations.

Optically, symbolically and every other way, this seems too little too late. Shutting out veterans from their memorial touchstone was more than a bad call, a lapse of judgment, a mere moment of tone deafness. In reality, it may have been the tidy effort of a box-checking bureaucrat but it reeked of the small work of a petty bully.

Ditto the closing of the D-Day cemetery in Normandy, France, where more than 9,000 Americans are buried. And this is the president who recently declared that The American People are not political pawns to be used to score political points?

Barack Obama must have been an inkling in the prescient mind of H.L. Mencken when the curmudgeon from whom all op-eds flow once described democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

While one may sympathize with Obama's contempt for his congressional adversaries, he may have cut off his own nose with an unforced error of magnified proportions. Spite is unbecoming a president, as Richard Nixon proved in another era of national disruption. But beyond personality, it is baffling to imagine anyone thinking that the way to winning hearts and minds is by disrespecting the nation's most beloved demographic.

I've often lamented the prospect of a world without my parents' generation, not because they were perfect but because these mothers and fathers take with them a national treasure -- their personal experiences and memories of The Great Depression and World War II and the lessons of sacrifice, thrift, courage and duty that defined them.

In their place, we have a bickering, twittering, snarling, snarky, toxic public square that has contaminated even our highest offices. How surreal it must seem to our oldest and wisest citizens to witness the breaking bad of America.

Nearly any but the die-hardest tea party member regrets the shuttering of the U.S. government. It was unnecessary, counterproductive, and punishes all the wrong people -- including federal employees, who do yeoman's work for which they receive little credit.

Tying the defunding of Obamacare to the shutdown was folly, which sensible House Republicans knew even as they ignored their better judgment. Even so, the White House and Democrats seem determined to prove their own toughness by punishing the least deserving.

As we approach the next battle over the debt ceiling, would that all of Washington remember the rule of the savvy negotiator: Always leave your opponent an exit.

Kathleen Parker, kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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