The President’s “National Garden of American Heroes” Is A Guaranteed Flop. Doesn’t Anyone Do Any Research Any More?

“So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States, I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past. I am signing an executive order to establish the National [Garden] of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.”

President Donald J. Trump, in his otherwise superb July 3, 2020 Mt Rushmore speech.

Ugh. I winced when I read those words, and I’m sure I was not alone. Did the President just come up with that hare-brained idea on the spot? I hope so. I hope his staff is better than  to endorse or, worse, support such a terrible, half-baked idea. It is incompetent and irresponsible, and guaranteed to be divisive. Here are three unsolvable problems:

I. The project exposed itself as ill-planned and poorly conceived immediately. The initial list of “great Americans” looked as if it had been assembled by throwing darts at a poster, with someone coming in later to try to make politically correct additions. Here is the (incomprehensible) list, in alphabetical order:

• John Adams
• Susan B. Anthony
• Clara Barton
• Daniel Boone
• Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
• Henry Clay
• Davy Crockett
• Frederick Douglass
• Amelia Earhart
• Benjamin Franklin
• Ulysses S. Grant
• Billy Graham
• Alexander Hamilton
• Thomas Jefferson
• Martin Luther King, Jr.
• Abraham Lincoln
• Douglas MacArthur
• Dolley Madison
• James Madison
• Christa McAuliffe
• Audie Murphy
• George S. Patton, Jr.
• Ronald Reagan
• Jackie Robinson
• Betsy Ross
• Elvis Presley [2]
• Antonin Scalia
• Frank Sinatra
• Harriet Beecher Stowe
• Harriet Tubman
• Booker T. Washington
• George Washington
• Orville and Wilbur Wright

To only mention some of the choices that make no sense: How can the first group include Douglas MacArthur, who was justly fired for insubordination by President Truman, rather than Dwight Eisenhower, who coordinated the victory over Hitler in Europe, or his boss, General George Marshall? Why would Dolly Madison make the cut, while two far more important First Ladies, Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt, be omitted? I am an admirer of Davy Crockett, but he didn’t do much of anything except create the model for media-hyped celebrities and manage to get himself killed at the Alamo. There are, oh, I’d say several hundred more substantial “great Americans,” including almost every President, than Davy. If there is going to be an inventors on the list, why only the Wright Brothers? Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Alexander Graham Bell all were of equal importance.  Henry Clay’s naive compromises on slavery really did enable the slave trade. He’s a better choice than John C. Calhoun, but less deserving than Daniel Webster. Frank Sinatra? FRANK SINATRA? Ol’ mobbed-up Blue Eyes, leaving off Bing Crosby and Elvis, to name just two equally important pop singers? I’d have Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry planted in the Garden before the likes of Sinatra. Meanwhile, why singers but no songwriters? Where’s Irving Berlin? Rodgers and Hammerstein? The Gershwins?  Hank Williams? Why singers but no dancers?

I know that the President doesn’t read, but the only author on the list is Stowe, and she’s only there because her book had such political and social significance (and I’ll bet my head that he’s never read her novel.) No Melville? Hawthorne? The Presidentdoesn’t go to plays either, but there are at least three playwrights everyone could agree on: O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. You could justify adding Lillian Hellman and August Wilson for “diversity,” though both  are a notch below the top three.

Other diversity choices are embarrassingly transparent, and pure pandering. Amelia Earhardt, who is mostly remembered because she disappeared, but not Charles Lindberg? (I know, he was a Nazi sympathizer, but the Thomas Jefferson principle applies.) How about Jimmy Doolittle? Naming Christa McAuliffe is the worst kind of hero affirmative action: she was a woman, a teacher and she died in a national tragedy, but placing her before the real astronauts like Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong makes the whole list look careless, amateurish, cynical  and arbitrary, which, of course, it is.

Omitting Franklin Roosevelt is indefensible. Including Justice Scalia as the only Supreme Court Justice is ridiculous: he would have mocked that himself. John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis, Earl Warren, Hugo Black,  Learned Hand, Thurgood Marshall...the list of equally or more qualified jurists is long

I could go on and would love to. (Where is Hamilton?) It’s a terrible list, but nicely characteristic of the careless, seat-of-the-pants manner in which this President handles everything.

2. The selection process is guaranteed to become a politicized, contentious, ugly mess, for reasons I shouldn’t have to elaborate upon. Already, there are complaints that the list is “mostly white men.” Well, of course it is: for most of our history non-white men had limited opportunities to excel, and women were relegated to subordinate status well into the 20th Century. Is the “Garden” going to recognize genuine achievements and importance, or employ lower standards meet affirmative action quotas?

3. It’s been tried before, and nobody cared. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans is an outdoor sculpture gallery located on the grounds of Bronx Community College  New York City. It was completed in 1900 with a grand  630-foot  colonnade (designed by Stanford White—where are the architects and builders that Trump boasted about in his speech?) exhibiting 98 bronze busts  of prominent Americans. It was the original Hall of Fame in the U.S., before baseball,s before any of them. No new busts have been added in decades, and most Americans don’t know the place exists. It is seldom visted and isfalling apart, but even without updating, the Hall’s list of members is better than what Trump proposed.

See Bell’s name in the photo above?

Then there was this variation, which I wrote about in May, “Presidents Park” in York County, Virginia, near Williamsburg. That10-acre park “featured a museum and a sculpture garden, and  visitors could walk among 43 huge concrete busts, each about 20 feet high and weighing as much as 22,000 pounds, of  the U.S. Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush.” As with the Hall of Fame, nobody went to see it, nobody cared, and it ended up like this…

The President’s Garden is destined for a similar fate.

52 thoughts on “The President’s “National Garden of American Heroes” Is A Guaranteed Flop. Doesn’t Anyone Do Any Research Any More?

    • Yes. Of course 1) few women 2) few blacks 3) its a weird selection, with a lot of relatively obscure figures honored while many major ones are not.

      But New Mexico has Elfago Baca, so I love it!

      • 2 statues, except VA which is allowed 3 so Washington always stays. NJ’s contributions at the moment are the rather obscure Richard Stockton (Continental Congressman, DOI signer) and the brave, but short-lived, Philip Kearny (Civil War general). I wouldn’t mind seeing Edison eventually make it, maybe Buzz Aldrin (although he’s still alive), William Brennan and Antonin Scalia, John Basilone, maybe Count Basie?

  1. Update: Facebook wouldn’t let me post this. It didn’t say it violated Facebook’s standard it just wouldn’t post no matter how many times I hit “post.” So I shared the link in a comment, which works.

    Boy, you’d think I could slip a post critical of POTUS by…

    • He was actually a Scot who moved to Canada, then to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1882. But he split his time between the US (first Cambridge, MA and later Washington, DC) and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

      • ​”But he split his time between the US (first Cambridge, MA and later Washington, DC) and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.”

        My Sister and BIL live in Leitches Creek, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

        I’ve dubbed them Newfies because of their proximity, and the term’s inestimably kitschy cachet.

        Yet THIS is how my familial attention is rewarded.

  2. Ill concieved or not I saw the gesture as an olive branch.

    The biggest reason why this will fail is that there will always be limited resources that will never ever satisfy who believe their most important people are more worthy than someone elses; otherwise known as identity selfishness.

  3. Proposed. Each person here comes up with a list of ten people.

    The Rules.
    1: No presidents, always some controversy, we have other ways of honoring them.
    2: Any person who held office must be chosen for something they did outside of said office, no honoring for using the mechanisms of the state no matter how beneficial to society.
    3: No Confederates, obvious divisiveness.
    4: You may have only one living person on your list.
    5: Your list must be made in good faith. You may not choose anyone you belive with upset or anger me, no owning the libs, I must not choose anything I have reason to believe will upset or anger you. Honest mistakes accepted.
    6: Do not remove someone from your list because they were mentioned by someone else, I want to see if we can find some consensus. That means people Trump or Jack mentioned are allowed.

    • My top of the head list.

      Dolly Parton
      Fredrick Douglass
      Fred Rodgers
      Sylvia Plath
      Sally Ride
      Harriet Tubman
      Deborah Sampson Gannett
      Nikola Tesla (He was naturalized and was way more awesome than Edison)
      Martin Luther King Jr. (despite the adultery)
      Ursula K. Le Guin (I’m a nerd, sue me)

      I wanted to include John Brown but thought there’d be controversy there.

      • Good list! There’s an argument for Brown. Clarence Darrow gave a speech honoring him every year for a long time. Sally Ride is of course more deserving than McAuliffe—good catch. Also paton, though I think the honorees have to be dead—it’s easier that way.

        Also: I was wrong…Baca is not in the Capitol.

        • I want more than ‘an argument for,’ I want consensus. If others post lists then we can strike all the ones that get vetoed and call the remaining Gideon’s band the Ethics Alarms Commentariat Great Americans List or EACGAL or ack gal!*

          *Which is what you’d say to me if you caught me in the morning before showering.

    • Hmmmm, let’s see:

      1. Douglas MacArthur (high commander and battlefield virtuoso, and the ego to match)
      2. Joshua L. Chamberlain (arguably saved the nation in one day)
      3. Alvin York (pacifist turned badass soldier)
      4. “Wild Bill” Donovan (founder of the OSS, which later evolved into the CIA)
      5. Thomas Edison (I’m a Jersey guy, greatest inventor we had so far)
      6. Neil Armstrong (one small step for man…)
      7. Henry Knox (without him the Revolution wouldn’t have gone anywhere)
      8. Charles Drew (made surgery much more likely to succeed)
      9. Marian Anderson (it’s always tough being first)
      10. Robert Fulton (the steamboat and the first real submarine)

    • In no particular order:

      Thomas Edison
      Ben Franklin
      Irving Berlin
      Dwight D. Eisenhower (the general)
      John Ford
      Clarence Darrow
      George Mason
      Thomas Jefferson (the philosopher)
      Jackie Robinson

        • Lewis/Clark are a better choice but if you want to make a swap why not take out one of the presidents who I’m going to veto in the second round for violating rule 1.

          Incidentally, if Steve wants to make a change I’d accept the entire Apollo 11 crew instead of just Neil Armstrong as one nomination.

          • I think it is unfair for a later career advancement to invalidate the significance of an earlier one. You should rethink that. Ike would be an easy choice, but because he was elected President, he’s out? Grant, Jefferson, Madison and Adams likewise.

            I don’t see how you can argue with Disney, easily the most transformative cultural force of the 20th Century.

            • I started my reasons in rule 1. Always some controversy and we have other ways of honoring them. Jefferson and Ike are already on money, Jefferson twice over on the five cent piece and the $2, Ike on the half-dollar.

              I’m not arguing with Disney, I’m saying if choosing between him and Lewis/Clark for one of your ten slots, the latter is the better choice, it’s an opinion nothing more.

              We’re always going to have more deserving people than honors available.

          • Yes, but 2 of the members, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, are still alive, and you said only one living person was allowed, which is why I didn’t make that nomination.

    • Alright. I can give it a try, in no particular order.
      Nikola Tesla
      Alfred Thayer Mahan
      Andrew Carnegie
      Benjamin Franklin
      Audie Murphy
      Will Rogers
      Isaac Asimov
      George Carlin
      Frederick Douglass
      John Moses Browning
      If I was allowed one president, I’d have to pick Teddy Roosevelt.

    • Ben Franklin (too many reasons to count, was president of pennsylvania, but not USA)
      Desmond Doss
      Fredrick Douglass
      John Brown (Proof positive that excessive fanatacism even in a correct cause is dangerous)
      Wyatt Earp
      Emperor Norton (Only in america…)
      Wright Brothers (One entry for two people, but still seems appropriate to me)
      Samuel Colt
      Virginia Hall
      Henry Ford

        • It’s tough, and there was a temptation to search for the unrecognized. Norton is just a personal fascination really.

          I almost had an honorable mentions list, but that promised to be a lot of time and names, so I just went until 10 people of importantance.

          • As I said before, there are always more people deserving than honors available. There’s nothing wrong with picking someone who’s been overlooked elsewhere. No one is worse off being left off our little ethics community list and all of us here would benefit from learning about previously overlooked great Americans.

            If nothing else, it’s a welcome break from the doomscrolling.

  4. I made a list of the men I considered the 30 greatest heroes when I was about 26. The Americans on it were: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Joshua L. Chamberlain, David Farragut, and John J. Pershing. Of course I was pulling from all of history, and you can’t leave out Churchill or Foch or Heraclius (not sure he made the cut, since I heard about him later). It was also, perhaps, ill-conceived, written by a young man just starting out, who thought he knew history because he’d been to college and believed in traditional heroism very strongly. I also made a list of the 30 greatest villains, and I bet you can guess who topped the list. I think it’s a lot easier to agree on who is a villain than on who is a hero. It’s easier to find things wrong than right, and it’s easier to condemn that to praise, especially those who came before us and were not as enlightened as we consider ourselves.

    I keep getting it into my head that I am going to write some kind of comprehensive analysis on heroism, but I think that’s going to have to wait until I retire. If I ever do, though, it’s definitely going to be broken down into multiple lists, not just one big one. The fighting kings, the high commanders, and the battlefield virtuosi could each take up a book on their own. Stepping away from the military, you could write a book each on the heroes of law enforcement, the lifesavers, the great explorers, the political leaders, the inventors, the risk-takers (test pilots, etc.). This is before we get into artists of any kind, or sports people.

    The thing is, there’s a limit to how many statues can you put up, how much can you put between two covers, etc. No two people will agree on everyone who should be honored. No two people will agree on which people’s great deeds outweigh whatever wrongs they may have committed, or if they do. Someone’s always there to be a wet blanket these days.

    I get that the president was reacting to the recent destruction, and wants to build something bigger and better than the monuments that have been destroyed recently. His heart was probably in the right place. However, I don’t think this is the way to do it. The way to do it is to protect the existing ones, make certain they stay in place, maybe provide money to repair or replace some of the destroyed ones, and emphasize that changes to public art are to be by conversations by reasonable people, not angry mobs of absolutists. Destructive behavior should not be rewarded nor encouraged. When something is damaged unlawfully, it should be restored, quickly if possible, just like Disney used to aggressively erase or paint over graffiti, on the grounds that kids who saw whatever they wrote on the wall erased would know they were wasting their time.

    Unfortunately, the president’s jurisdiction only extends to Federal property, and most of the governors and mayors are not of a similar mindset. DeBlasio protects monuments because he has Cuomo leaning on him, and it’s not to his advantage if the city gets trashed because it will hurt the tourism industry. No other mayor or governor will do it. They just tell the police to stand down, that a monument isn’t worth the possibility of injury, or they shrug, saying they wanted it gone anyway, but going through all the trouble of hearings and votes is too much effort and might not get the desired result. I have to say, as an Italian-American, it’s hard not to feel the target of an organized campaign of bigotry, as more and more monuments we paid for and donated get dumped in storage yards at best, broken to pieces at worst, and the holiday that commemorates our contribution keeps coming under attack.

    However, this isn’t the answer, and I can’t see this attack ending until every city is Italienisch-rein.

  5. This list, and even some of your choices suffers badly from the modern notion that “famous celebrity” (Frank Sinatra…FRANK SINATRA?..hell yeah: ??????), or “famously killed” (Christa McAuliffe) = HERO!.

    • Wouldn’t a statue of McAuliffe be a reminder of how some nice, normal Americans died horrifically in a freak accident? How UPLIFTING! (There’s a place for that but not here)

  6. Jack, incredibly, incomprehensively, and bewilderingly asked:

    “Why would Dolly Madison make the cut?”

    Really? Dolly Madison? I mean, how many other First Ladies have had a bakery named after them? Do I have to remind you of her “Donut Jems”? What about her cinnamon “Coffee Cakes”? And how can you forget her “Zingers”? Dear Lord! Those are important contributions of world cuisine let alone US culture.


  7. Dontcha just know that the only museum or memorial garden with a snowball’s chance in hell of lasting forever will “honor” winners of Darwin Awards?

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