- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

Once upon a not-so-distant time, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History made a visitor feel good about his country and its heroes. But to visit it now is to wonder if the United States has produced anybody heroic at all.

Take George Washington. I remember a huge Smithsonian exhibit on Washington's life, I think in celebration of his 250th birthday back when I was a college freshman in 1982. I spent more than two hours there, reading almost every word, inspired by Washington's courage, patriotism and integrity.

Granted, it was a uniquely timed exhibit. But someone would expect that any recognition of Washington in today's museum would share the same general attitude, even if not the same depth.

Forget it.

Hidden in an out-of-the-way corner, unadvertised in the Museum Guide, a tiny glass case displays various knickknacks once owned by the nation's first president. The tone of the accompanying text is almost apologetic:

"Washington still helps satisfy our national need for heroes," it explains. Not that he was a hero, mind you, but that we can use him to meet our needs.

"Figures like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a variety of celebrities seem to be more accessible heroes and role models for some Americans in the late 20th Century, but Washington is still with us," the text continues. "Although more remote and critically evaluated than he once was, Washington remains part of the national culture. He represents what many people want, and expect, America to be… . The Washington collections have been used primarily to honor the first president in his symbolic role."

The museum thus throws Washington a bone by letting him be a symbol for our own wish fulfillment, but the man himself may or may not have been worth emulating.

And that's about the nicest thing the museum has to say about the nation's history. Indeed, to judge from the tone of most of the exhibits, a more accurate name for the building might be the National Museum of American Oppression.

Here you can be inspired by "Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration." The very real hardships faced by slaves' descendants, of course, are emphasized. The opportunities they enjoyed aren't.

Here you can walk through a celebration of the history of New Mexico. One part of the exhibit: "Christianization: Faith and Defiance." In it, we learn, "Both Pueblos and Hispanics have been subject to invasive forms of Christianity… . Conflicts, conversion and coexistence continue today… . The Indians survived the incursions of Catholicism by 'Indianizing' it." Read, too, of how the Pueblos were subject to "imprisoning," "executing," "beating" and "shaming," but that nevertheless "some Pueblos never converted, and those who did rarely gave up their traditional beliefs."

All this led, naturally, to what's celebrated in the next display case as "Hispanic Resistance and Self-Determination."

The exhibit may touch on some important truths but its story is wholly unleavened by any appreciation for benefits brought by Europeans.

Most representative of all, perhaps, is the huge exhibit called "Communities in a Changing Nation." Here, we learn yet again that despite the promises of the Declaration of Independence, "race, religion, ethnicity, class and gender limited the right of many Americans to participate in the Constitution's democratic government." And when industrialization occurred, "perhaps the most striking change was a deepening of class divisions in American society."

It's all a relentless and tedious litany of reasons for American self-flagellation. Forgive us sinners, for we have failed to honor our common humanity.

By now, of course, the Smithsonian's leftist leanings are old news to those who have paid attention. But to the throngs of school kids who pass through the museum each day, it's all brand new and apparently further evidence that cynicism is appropriate about our country and its political system. That's what the kids learn in our textbooks, and in our museums, and every time President Clinton apologizes to some other country for America's horrid failings.

Hence, perhaps, the electorate's amorphous but deeply patriotic yearnings into which Sen. John McCain seemed to tap, before his candidacy self-immolated. Americans of my vintage, whose early memories are of an American flag on the moon and who began to come of age during a joyful Bicentennial celebration, want to reminded of why this country is special. And those too young to remember such landmark events, those who came of age when the news was full of Gennifer and Monica, Somalia and sleazy fund-raisers, want reason to believe for the first time in a special-ness they've rarely witnessed or been taught.

Next March 16, it's not Washington but James Madison whose 250th birthday will be marked. Will the nation's leading cultural institutions seize the occasion to celebrate our civic heritage? Or will the Smithsonian instead hijack the birthday as an excuse to castigate the Three-Fifths Compromise?

Several congressmen sit on the Smithsonian's board. They should not rest until the museum gets our history right.

Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer for the Mobile Register in Mobile, Ala.

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