The Public Broadcasting System has a promotional television commercial that starts off with a picture of Lincoln’s statue in the memorial on the Mall in Washington and continues with pictures of national and local parks and other public facilities. It is accompanied by the soundtrack from the film “Dances with Wolves.” It is both majestic and inspiring. The theme of the commercial, set out in bold letters in front of Lincoln, is “THIS BELONGS TO YOU.” It ends with a picture of the United States Capitol.
We just found out the commercial is a lie.
Apparently, our national parks, monuments and treasures no longer belong to the people of the United States. They belong to a capricious federal establishment that is intent on punishing the American public for its temerity to elect representatives who think there should be a limit to the resources and power the government can take from its citizens. At the root of this vindictiveness is contempt for the very democratic processes that the Constitution prescribes.
For the first time during one of many government shutdowns, the National Park Service has closed the monuments and memorials in its care. It even closed the World War II Memorial to Honor Flight veterans who sacrificed far more for their country than anyone in this administration could imagine. It also roped off the overlooks on parkways that were otherwise still open, for no apparent reason. The government shuttered parks, beaches, historic sites, waterways and other facilities putatively owned by the public, regardless of the source of funding for those facilities. Never mind that these facilities are still patrolled by police that continue to be paid.
On the other hand, President Obama’s Camp David retreat and favorite golf courses remain open — at least for him. To make it absolutely clear that the closings are nothing more than political retribution against American voters, a pro-immigration rally was allowed to proceed Tuesday on the otherwise closed National Mall.
What this tells us is that the noble ideal — championed by PBS — that these national treasures actually belong to the people of the United States is false. They belong to a government that prints and borrows its own money, tells its citizens how to behave, and demands whatever tribute from them it may require for its purposes. When the people — 60 percent of which already think the government is too powerful — try to insist on some accountability through their elected representatives, the federal government sets out to exact its revenge from the public for exercising that right. In other words, it resorts to petty tyranny.
It is a sad irony that Congress is considering legislation to give federal employees back pay for the days they were furloughed by the legislative impasse. That is a horrible mistake. The budget of the National Park Service and the salaries of its employees should be cut, and cut permanently, for each day that the public was denied access to these supposedly public facilities. Perhaps that might bring the administration to its senses.
The monuments and treasures that have been expropriated by the administration are all tributes to the citizenry, their history and their accomplishments. Many of the sites celebrate the individuals, like President Lincoln, who embodied the highest values of the nation. By arrogating the power to close those facilities to the public that commissioned and paid for them, the federal government has betrayed those values. After all, the nation’s monuments and memorials are nothing more or less than physical symbols of the nation’s values and ideals. The government has managed to deface them more effectively than any vandal could.
The closure of the Lincoln Memorial will avoid at least one embarrassment for the administration. No one will be there to witness the marble statue inside shed a tear for the betrayal of what he stood for. In words inscribed on the memorial itself, Lincoln stated his dream for the nation: “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The Great Emancipator never would have envisioned the day those words would be manacled by a federal bureaucracy charged with their care. He, for one, understood the meaning of liberty.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is a lawyer and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.