"Ladies and gentlemen, the statue of Ronald Reagan," the announcer inside the Capitol Rotunda said last Wednesday before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped 87-year-old Nancy Reagan to her feet so she could tug back the blue drape cloaking Chas Fagan's 7-foot bronze statue of the Gipper.
The audience rose to politely applaud. Among them were a bipartisan collection of the type of folks you'd normally see shouting each other down on the Sunday chat shows. From the right came former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), former Reagan Chief of Staff James Baker III, former California Governor Pete Wilson and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). From the left: Reagan-era ABC News White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden.
Reagan, who divided the parties during his presidency like no other until the reign of George W. Bush, brought them all together on this day. Mourning in America apparently does such things.
No one beamed with more pride than Ken Calvert, the Republican congressman whose sprawling, Riverside-based district includes parts of south Orange County. Calvert led the effort to install the Reagan statue after a nearly five-year campaign. Each state has two statues on the Rotunda. Until Wednesday, California was represented by likenesses of Father Junipero Serra, who founded the now-controversial mission system that included Mission San Juan Capistrano, and 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian Universalist minister Thomas Starr King. You'd think morality-spewing conservatives would be tickled pink that two men of the cloth repped sin-spewing California on the national Rotunda. But many of the same right-wingers hold up Reagan (actually, the idea of Reagan, whether they realize it or not) as their messiah. Count among them Calvert, who talks the Moral Majority talk despite literally getting caught with his pants down and a hooker in his car.
Calvert has said he saw an opening for Ronnie after Kansas replaced its Rotunda statue of Governor George Washington Glick--not to be confused with Martin Short's rotund Jiminy Glick--with a bronze of much better-known President Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps sensing the hell he'd pay election time were he to mess with Serra, who is hailed in a second statue at the San Juan Capistrano mission that is in Calvert's district (and creepily features an Indian boy near the padre's midsection), the congressman took aim at the Starr King bust. "I thought, well, you know, he was a great person, but he's been here for a while," Calvert told McClatchy Newspapers' Rob Hotakainen. "Maybe we can replace him with Ronald Reagan. And one thing led to another. . . . We were able to get it done."
It required approval by the California Legislature in 2006 and round-the-clock fund-raising by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Mission accomplished. But if Calvert believes everyone is happy with this, he's sorely mistaken. And this anti-Reagan brigade is not filled with the usual smirking liberal suspects.
Among the royally peeved is Jack Cheevers. He's not a flaming lefty, Sandinista or fired air traffic controller. He's an Oakland writer finishing up Act of War, a book about North Korea's capture of the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo in 1968. Cheevers respects history--something he believes the Reagan bronze disrespects. He elaborates in a Redding Record opinion piece.
The imminent removal from the U.S. Capitol of a statue of Thomas Starr King, a charismatic San Francisco minister and orator credited with helping keep California in the Union during the run-up to the Civil War, hardly qualifies as a major crime against history. Yet the successful effort by California Republicans to replace him in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a larger-than-life sculpture of Ronald Reagan is troubling nonetheless.
Starr King's bust had adorned the statuary collection, which Cheevers likens to "a sort of national hall of fame," from 1931 until Wednesday's ceremony. It's now bound for Sacramento, where it will be displayed at the state Capitol. That means starr King's achievements will be lost on future visitors to the nation's Capitol, where folks already see reminders of Reagan, not counting the ones that are in many of their hometowns.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who says the Gipper inspired him as a boy, orchestrated the move to bump King. No doubt the congressman and other Republican stalwarts feel they can honor their hero by strewing the land with as many smiling likenesses of him as possible.
But although Reagan arguably has been sufficiently memorialized (with an airport, a museum, highways, courthouses, post offices, state office buildings and parks named after him, and his own postage stamp), King needs all the exposure he can get.
A fair-haired and small-framed Unitarian Universalist minister, Starr King arrived in San Francisco in April 1860, a year before the Civil War erupted and as the state was embroiled in the slavery issue. Californians banned slavery in 1849, but many transplanted Southerners viewed the Golden State as ideal for slaves and hoped to split off Southern California and turn it into a slave state. Meanwhile, wealthy Southern California landowners, angry at state taxes, wanted to break away and form their own separate republic.
Tensions came to a head in 1859, when David S. Terry, the pro-slavery former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, shot and killed U.S. Sen. David Broderick, a noted slavery opponent, in a duel near San Francisco's Lake Merced. That same year, the Legislature passed a bill to cut California in two, something the U.S. Congress rejected. During the 1860 presidential election, all four members of California's congressional delegation campaigned for pro-slavery Democrat, John C. Breckinridge. In the end, Abraham Lincoln barely won California, beating another Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, by fewer than 750 votes out of about 120,000 cast.
Starr King was deeply agitated by talk of California being bisected or seceding. He embarked on a statewide speaking tour, preaching against disunion with a voice that, in the words of one observer, "held within it all the sweetness of the harp when struck by a master hand, all the power and solemn grandeur of a great cathedral organ."
The 140-pound minister wasn't always well received, encountering some hostile crowds and death threats.
After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861, pro-Union sentiment swept California. The Legislature pledged loyalty to Washington, and tens of millions of dollars in gold were shipped east, playing a crucial role in equipping and feeding the federal army.
Starr King was hailed as "the orator who saved the nation."
During the Civil War, King hit the road to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission, which supplied nurses and medicine to wounded soldiers. He collected $1.5 million--or about one-fifth of the money gathered nationwide. Exhausted, he returned to San Francisco and, in 1864, succumbed to diphtheria and pneumonia at age 39.
Ronald Reagan is a giant of American history, and his memory needs no further burnishing.
Thomas Starr King is a colossus of California history, and he deserves better than to be tossed out the back door like yesterday's hash.
The descendants of Starr King are also miffed, according to Hotakainen's McClatchy piece.
"Unfortunately, people say, 'Who was Thomas Starr King?' " said Ginny King Supple, Starr King's great-great-granddaughter, from Los Angeles. "He never got the public recognition after the fact. He was very well-known back in the 1800s and early 1900s. So it is disturbing."
She voted for Reagan, but said that, from a historical perspective, her great-great-grandfather had a lot more to do with the state of the state of California than Reagan. "More than anything, he kept California from seceding from the Union during the Civil War," King Supple said. "He was a great orator."
Thomas Starr King V, Starr King's great-great-great-grandson, said family members weren't so much troubled by the removal of the statue as by the hasty manner in which it was done.
One California legislator conceded during the debate that he didn't know who Starr King was--which says a lot about California's history education. Legislators acted quickly "so as not to appear anti-Reagan," said Starr King V.
"If there had been a thoughtful and reflective debate on the issue, both in the Legislature and in the public forum, and Californians had decided to replace one adopted son with another in Statuary Hall, then I think everyone would have been on board," he said. "Instead, Starr King was unceremoniously swept aside because the California Legislature hadn't done their history homework. One wonders if Reagan's statue will suffer the same fate 100 years from now."
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Unitarian Universalist churches are also upset.
"We're not happy about it," Carol Bodeau, the director of religious education at Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, says in the McClatchy report. "We have certainly been having conversations about it in our churches and in our ministers' gatherings for a long time."
Calvert brushed aside the comments, saying there was "tremendous support" for a statue honoring the man he considers his political mentor.
"Look, it's not unusual for statues to be there for a while and then be rotated out," he said. "Thomas Starr King's statue has been there for some time, and I'm sure it'll be given a prestigious location somewhere here in California."