December 15, 2008
The new Capitol Visitor Center has a shaky grasp of history
JOHN J. MILLER
Carpenters follow a simple rule: Measure twice, cut once. The builders of the brand-new Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) might have benefited from a similar adage about checking facts before etching them into stone. Just a few weeks before the opening of their $621 million underground complex on December 2, they were trying to correct a dumb mistake. A major display misidentified the nation’s motto as “E pluribus unum.” In reality, the national motto is “In God We Trust,” as Congress established by law in 1956. Anyone who looks closely at the panel in the front of the exhibition hall will see the temporary plaster fix-up job.
Confusion about the motto is the type of innocent blunder a person might make while playing a casual game of Trivial Pursuit, but not the kind of error you’d expect to see chiseled into the hallowed halls of the Capitol. And some conservatives worry that this is more than a routine case of federal incompetence. “There’s a terrible movement to rewrite our history and obscure our faith,” says J. Randy Forbes, a Republican congressman from Virginia who chairs the Congressional Prayer Caucus, about the CVC.
In September, Forbes and more than a hundred members of the House, from both parties, released a letter to Stephen T. Ayers, the acting Architect of the Capitol: “We have been troubled to learn in recent weeks that some aspects of the new CVC . . . [may] reflect an apathetic disposition toward our nation’s religious history.” Their efforts have led to improvements, but it’s a fight that shouldn’t have needed waging in the first place — and even in its aftermath, plenty of problems remain unaddressed.
Last fall, Ayers came under fire for a policy that seemed not merely apathetic toward religion, but actively hostile. A boy from Ohio wanted to give his grandfather an American flag that had flown over the Capitol. He contacted his congressman, Republican Michael Turner, whose staff worked to fulfill this ordinary constituent request. When the flag and its accompanying certificate showed up in Turner’s office, however, something wasn’t quite right. The boy had asked for an inscription on the certificate that honored his grandfather’s “love of God, country, and family.” The certificate, however, did not include the word “God.” Turner asked for an explanation from the architect’s office and learned about a policy against religious expressions on flag certificates. He and several other members of Congress complained, and the prohibition was quickly eliminated. “The Architect of the Capitol is no longer censoring the Architect of the Universe,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican, at the time.
The immediate problem was solved, but many conservatives were startled by its mere existence — and they observed that it came in the wake of a trend toward the effacement of religion from the public squares of Washington. David Barton, a historian who heads WallBuilders, an Evangelical organization, had tried to call attention to it. The FDR Memorial, dedicated in 1997, contains no mention of God. Neither does the World War II Memorial, opened in 2004. Carved on one of its walls is a short D-Day message by Dwight Eisenhower, but the quote ends just before Ike seeks “the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” Barton is convinced this isn’t accidental: “It’s hard not to see the bias. Religion is completely scrubbed out.”
The Capitol, by contrast, is full of religious imagery. Eight large pictures ring its massive rotunda. One is titled “Baptism of Pocahontas.” In another, Pilgrims kneel in prayer, surrounding a Bible opened to the first page of the New Testament. Two more feature crosses. Perhaps the most prominent display is in the House chamber, where the words “In God We Trust” appear on the wall above the speaker’s rostrum.
Even so, the Capitol is occasionally called a “secular temple.” While tourists on pilgrimages to Washington don’t always have faith on their minds, many of them do want to see where their legislative representatives work. Unfortunately, the Capitol wasn’t built to receive guests in today’s large numbers. The idea for an underground visitor center on the building’s east side goes back several decades. In the early 1990s, members of Congress envisioned a structure only slightly smaller than the one that was actually built — “all for a mere $71 million,” as the Washington Post put it at the time. Republicans objected to the cost, however, and the project was shelved. But it didn’t vanish. When a lunatic gunman killed two Capitol Police officers in 1998, Congress felt a need to overhaul its security procedures, and as part of the plan, it authorized $100 million for the CVC.
The congressional Big Dig was on — and the expenses started to pile up. Within two years, the CVC’s price tag rose to $265 million. Then came 9/11, the anthrax attacks, and more worries about security. New budget: $373.5 million. The opening was delayed. Today, the estimated construction cost of Congress’s next-door pork-barrel project is $621 million, almost nine times what Republicans once deemed too steep.
The CVC will prove popular with tourists. When it opens, they’ll see a big difference in convenience and efficiency. Rather than standing in long lines on sweltering summer days, they’ll be able to make advance reservations on a website and walk into an air-conditioned facility. They’ll also get to watch an orientation film in one of two theaters, eat in a 530-seat restaurant, and choose from 26 restrooms. (There are only five public restrooms in the Capitol itself, and they aren’t easy to find.)
They’ll also have a chance to stroll through a large exhibition hall and study educational displays on Congress and the Constitution — and that’s where the controversy over content arose. When Sen. Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, explored the hall, he wasn’t pleased. “There was an obvious absence of any accurate historical reference to our religious heritage,” he says. He noticed the misidentification of the national motto, but the problem went much deeper — and he took it to the floor of the Senate. “In touring the CVC, I found the exhibits to be politically correct, left-leaning, and secular in nature,” he said on September 27. “There seems to be a trend of whitewashing God out of our history.” He noted that although the hall displayed a couple of Bibles, a replica of the House chamber didn’t include “In God We Trust” above the speaker’s rostrum.
There were other questionable omissions. One display, for instance, quotes from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: “The authors of the Northwest Ordinance believed educated citizens were critical to the success of self-government. Article 3 declared, ‘. . . education shall forever be encouraged.’” But that’s a highly selective excerpt that secularizes the document. Here’s the full quote from Article 3: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
DeMint and Forbes pressured the Architect of the Capitol’s office to improve these displays. At one point this fall, DeMint put a hold on the bill that would have allowed the CVC to open. He and Forbes wound up winning several concessions: The replica of the House chamber now includes “In God We Trust,” and the Northwest Ordinance is more fully explained. In addition, the Pledge of Allegiance will be carved into the walls of the CVC and there will be new displays on the role of religion in the nation’s heritage.
Yet the exhibition hall still includes plenty of liberal bias. A section on FDR describes the New Deal, in rah-rah fashion, as “a creative burst of energy that initiated economic recovery” during the Depression. There’s a panel on the 19th-century impeachment of Andrew Johnson, but nothing comparable on the 20th-century impeachment of Bill Clinton (except a brief mention in a video). What’s more, conservative icons are almost totally missing. There’s a picture of Robert A. Taft, but no image of Barry Goldwater or Henry Hyde. At the same time, the CVC is full of dutiful tributes to female firsts: the first woman elected to the House (Jeannette Rankin), the first woman to serve in the Senate (Rebecca Felton), the first woman elected to the Senate (Hattie Caraway), the first woman elected to both the House and the Senate (Margaret Chase Smith), the first “woman of color” and first Asian-American woman elected to Congress (Patsy Mink), the longest-serving woman in Congress (Edith Nourse Rogers), and so on.
An alcove on modern history includes big pictures of an Earth Day rally, an ACT-UP protest on AIDS funding, and hippies at the Pentagon in 1967. It’s not as if the CVC made no attempt at balance: There’s also a black-and-white photo of Vietnam-era “pro-war demonstrators” that’s one-quarter the size of the full-color anti-war image. Yet the CVC seems a little hung up on Vietnam. On the same wall, there’s a hard-to-miss picture of a woman hugging a tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. The caption reads: “The nation continued to mourn its fallen soldiers of the Vietnam conflict. The war claimed over 58,000 casualties.” (Actually, it claimed over 58,000 deaths; the number of casualties, which includes injuries, is a lot higher.) The photo is a powerful symbol of loss. A close look at the tombstone reveals, however, that it’s for a man who died in 1982, seven years after the last American soldier left Saigon. He was not a “fallen soldier of the Vietnam conflict,” but a 76-year-old veteran of three wars.
There are plenty of little errors, too. The presidential election of 1824 was not the first one “to excite high public interest and participation” (read about the elections of 1796, 1800, and 1812). The states did not ratify ten of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution passed by Congress (they ratified eleven: The first ten are the Bill of Rights and the eleventh is the 27th amendment, finally approved in 1992).
It’s hard to avoid a sad conclusion: Congress’s monument to itself isn’t even good enough for government work.