- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2014


If you’re one of 318 million Americans who didn’t manage to make it to the First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio, last year, don’t worry. You didn’t miss much, according to some of the 10,979 people who trudged to the wilting Rust Belt town to visit the museum last year.

Trip Advisor users rated the museum among the worst tourist attractions in Canton. Not only was it behind the Pro Football Hall of Fame (there’s no shame in that), but it scored worse than a car museum, two golf courses and a warehouse filled with model ships (all of which should be completely humiliating to the people behind the museum). Visitors chided the First Ladies National Historic Site as “underwhelming” and “fussy and unwelcoming,” and criticized the lack of artifacts on display.

One sightseer said her family’s visit to the first ladies museum was “the most unpleasant experience [they] have ever had at a historic home.”

The site performed just as poorly on other travel-related websites. It scored just 5.6 out of 10 on Foursquare and earned only 2 out of 5 stars on Yelp, where one reviewer warned, “I don’t recommend going here unless you don’t have anything else to do in Canton.”

How does a museum that is an abject failure, receiving just 30 (often unsatisfied) visitors a day, stay in business? With your tax dollars, that’s how.

Every year the federal government pours nearly $1 million into the National Park Service-managed boondoggle just to keep it afloat.

In total, this fiasco has squandered more than $12 million taken from the pockets of hardworking Americans.

The story of how the First Ladies National Historic Site came to exist — and how it came to be located in Canton — is a troubling example of politics at its worst, where pork-barrel spending comes first and taxpayers come last.

The museum was the brainchild of Mary Regula, wife of retired Republican Rep. Ralph Regula. While Mr. Regula was in Congress, Mrs. Regula founded a nonprofit called the National First Ladies’ Library that operated out of the childhood home of President William McKinley’s wife, Ida Saxton McKinley, in downtown Canton.

Mrs. Regula persuaded her husband to broker a deal to use tax dollars to turn the home into a federally managed museum devoted to celebrating America’s first ladies. The plan allowed her National First Ladies’ Library organization to work with the National Park Service to manage the facility.

The scheme was a boon for Mr. Regula, who represented the Canton area in the House of Representatives for 36 years. He was able to use his influence as an appropriator to pass money along to his wife’s organization, while creating a tourist attraction (albeit a pretty lame one) for his district.

Among the taxpayer-funded handouts Mr. Regula snagged for his wife were a $2.5 million federal grant to turn a nearby former bank building into a headquarters for the National First Ladies’ Library and a $124,000 earmark allowing his wife’s organization to buy a duplicate copy of every book purchased by first lady Abigail Fillmore for the White House during Millard Fillmore’s presidency.

Apparently, Mrs. Regula believed every American heart would race at the prospect of seeing a replica of books bought by Millard Fillmore’s wife sitting on a bookshelf.

The board of the National First Ladies’ Library reads like a who’s who of the wives of scandal-prone politicians. In addition to Mrs. Regula, who still serves as the president of the board; Joyce Murtha, the widow of longtime Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania; and Alma Rangel, the wife of Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, both sit on the organization’s board.

In 2010, Mr. Rangel was found guilty by the House Ethics Committee of 11 charges of violating House rules and federal laws related to doling out political favors and exploiting his office for personal financial gain. Murtha was regularly named among the most corrupt members of Congress and criticized for directing billions of dollars in earmarks towards his district and the districts of his buddies.

Not a lot of folks would go to a first ladies museum even if it were located in the childhood home of one of America’s most prominent and important president’s wives, such as Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt or Jackie Kennedy. Based in the home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the site has no hope of drawing many visitors.

Mrs. McKinley is hardly a notable first lady. She was plagued with epilepsy and rarely appeared in public. At dinners, Ida always sat next to her husband, allowing the president to cover Ida’s head with a napkin if she was struck by one of her frequent seizures. President McKinley didn’t want his dinner guests to be put off by the temporary facial distortions the seizures often caused.

Let’s be honest, though. The point of the museum was never to draw visitors and generate money. The point was to create a pork project that would give then-Rep. Regula something to brag to his constituents about, while at the same time creating a job for his wife.

In that regard, the First Ladies National Historic Site has been a total success.

In the eyes of taxpayers who will once again be forced to shell out almost $1 million this year to subsidize the failing museum, however, the First Ladies National Historic Site has been, and will always be, a flop.

Drew Johnson is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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