Emily (8 ½ years old) and her little brother Elias (5 ½) were making a floor puzzle of the United States: the sort that features a patchwork of colors, combines some of the smaller states into single pieces, and highlights images of whatever is notable about them (Hawa'ai gets stuck with a pineapple). Elias looked at South Dakota and said; "I know what is in South Dakota! The Spinx!" His sister corrected that the "Sphinx" was in Africa, in Egypt, but I saw right away that it was the tiny image of Mt. Rushmore that caused the confusion.
As I identified the four monumental heads of these Presidents for my children, my thoughts turned to speculation about the criteria used for selecting which of our Nation's chief executives would be immortalized in collosal granite. Was it popularity, or the sober assessment of history, that placed Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt between the Father of our Country and the Great Emancipator?
Mount Rushmore was the brainchild of historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 conceived of the idea as both a "Gateway to the West" and the mother of all tourist traps. With the backing of Senator Peter Norbeck, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was brought on board the following year, but he insisted that he was not going to waste his life immortalizing regional heroes. There would be no busts of Buffalo Bill or the ghosts of Sioux warriors riding in the sky. This would be a memorial of great presidents, and after much searching, a suitable site was found in Harney National Forest and the enabling legislation passed to permit the carving of the mountainside.
What was missing was money, and the project faltered until it attracted a powerful patron - President Calvin Coolidge, who in 1927 happened to be vacationing in the Black Hills. This three week holiday became a three-month presidential extravaganza, featuring among other things his formal adoption into the Sioux indian nation as an honorary member with the name "Chief Leading Eagle". Native Americans finally became citizens on his watch, so there is some historic justification for this honor. Mrs. Coolidge arrived for her holiday with a pet raccoon, and park officials secretly hemmed in a section of trout stream and stocked it nightly so the novice fisherman could fill the presidential creel.
Coolidge dedicated the site of the new monument that August, but the price of his support seems to have been that he have a major say in determining which presidents would be honored on the mountain. It was Coolidge who insisted that in addition to Washington, there be two Republicans and one Democrat. This gave Teddy Roosevelt his place, and meant that Jefferson would trump Jackson for the sole available spot. Wilson was a non-starter too, as he was both of the wrong party and his presidency too recent to be assessed for posterity.
If party politics were not a criterion (and what public monument is wholly free of that influence?), who might have been given the nod? Aside from Jackson, the pantheon of Presidents was rather thin in public memory. Madison might have won a spot as the author of the Constitution and our war president in 1812. Monroe's Doctrine would have had a certain appeal. Mr. Polk's War probably wasn't popular enough in modern eyes, and though it might have pleased the disaffected first sculptor of Stone Mountain to place Grant among the immortals, his presidency was a failure, coinciding with the takeover of the very Black Hills where the monument was enshired, and in any case the very idea was politically untenable.
So we are left with the four "greats" we have, and each of them consistantly ranks very high in scholar surveys and public polls. If a second set of four were ever chosen, the historians would favor Jackson, Wilson, and most especially F.D.R., while the public would look well on Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan. If a second Mt. Rushmore were a "shovel ready" project in line for stimulus dollars and the past is any guide, I'd look for Ike and not Ron as the token Republican, alongside Teddy, Woodrow and John. That is the fun of counterfactual speculation. How do you see it?