National Mall Morphing Into a Monument of Monstrosity

Published November 20, 2006

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Last week, several thousand people gathered on the National Mall for a "virtual groundbreaking" for a proposed Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial.

Planners hadn't even obtained the permits, yet. The event was more a fundraiser than an actual groundbreaking.

The memorial is set to go up on a piece of land just off the Tidal Basin, putting it within view of the Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt memorials.

Plans are also in the works for an African-American History Museum on the National Mall and a memorial to President Eisenhower. And it's probably just a matter of time before conservatives in Congress again begin agitating for a Ronald Reagan Memorial. It's likely that we'll also get a memorial to Sept. 11, and/or to the victims of, and the war on, terrorism.

The National Mall, originally envisioned by Washington, D.C.'s planner and architect Pierre L'Enfant (that's right, the man who built our nation's capital was French!) as a serene place for public celebration and quiet contemplation, is quickly turning into a kind of kitchy amusement park for aggrieved parties and special interests.

Recent additions — the FDR Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the National Museum of the American Indian — have added more clutter, more traffic, and further obstructed the serene views L'Enfant intended.

Congress itself isn't immune to the problem either. Six years ago, it approved a half-billion dollar "Congressional Visitors Center" on the Mall to celebrate the works of Congress. It's now three years and tens of millions of dollars behind its scheduled completion.

Times change, of course. And it's certainly understandable why Congress might want to add more recent events of significance to the roster of history and collective memory that lines the Mall. But we're to the point now where some groups — some deserving, some not — have come to see a slice of real estate in America's backyard as a symbol of how seriously we take their grievances, significance or contribution.

The problem is, with only 700+ acres to work with, there's only so much recognition available.

The mall in many ways presents a tidy symbol of what's happened to the federal government over the last half-century, all the more appropriate given that it's owned by the federal government, and lies between the Capitol in the White House.

Economists frequently talk about the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Select groups of people with a strong interest in, for example, a federal subsidy can come to Washington and wield quite a bit of clout. Few will object, because say, a $250 million subsidy to cranberry farmers doesn't much affect the average taxpayer.

An individual congressman, then, will feel tremendous pressure from hundreds of groups like our hypothetical cranberry farmers, and little pressure from the federal taxpayers who subsidize them. But soon enough, there are hundreds of such programs, the federal government grows bloated, and taxpayers do begin to feel the pinch.

Of course, Congress still won't want to actually eliminate any of these programs for the same reason they started them — each small, powerful interest group getting these benefits has much more incentive to punish lawmakers who cross them than does the average taxpayer footing the bill.

This is much like what's happened to the National Mall. When Vietnam veterans groups first approached Congress about a memorial, who — after the sacrifices they'd made — could possibly tell them no?

Same for the veterans of the Korean War. The Depression-era generation then moved for an FDR memorial. Then came the World War II vets. And so on. We now have a Mall that's overcrowded, less scenic, less peaceful and contemplative, and it's only going to get worse.

What's worse, the new monuments aren't adding much to the ambience.

The Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and even the Vietnam memorials are simple, elegant, and poignant.

Tellingly, the most recent memorials — FDR, World War II, and the American Indian museum — are cumbersome, expansive, and seem overly concerned with not offending sensibilities.

Franklin Roosevelt once said that if the nation insisted on giving him a memorial, it should be no larger than his desk. In the five decades between his death and the opening of his memorial in 1998, "no bigger than my desk" grew into a sprawling, expansive, unwieldy attempt to capture his legacy — an apt metaphor for what's happened to the federal government under and since Roosevelt's time in the White House.

The World War II Memorial, rushed to completion after badgering from big swingers like Tom Hanks and Bob Dole, is a clunky, checklist attempt at a memorial that overwhelms with an assault of fountains, flags, plaques, and concrete. It looks as if its designers didn't want to offend anyone by omission, so they erred on the side of including everything — every state, every subgroup of soldier, every military branch, every theater, and every country gets a pillar, a fountain, a flag or a plaque. Simple and elegant, it isn't.

Then there's the National Museum of the American Indian, a hulking chunk of concrete a stone's throw from the U.S. Capitol that upon opening was universally panned.

Slate's Timothy Noah, for example, called it "a public service announcement" for Native Americans that had almost "no scholarly value."

None of this is to say that these groups aren't worthy of commemoration or some sort of recognition. But the debacle that's become of the National Mall does demonstrate just how difficult it is for the federal government to say "no" when interest groups — especially sympathetic ones — come calling.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.

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