One of the great things about being a historian who likes to write about connections and themes in the interaction between the past and the present, is that I will not ever run out of interesting topics as long as I am paying attention. As I write in late August 2014, there are numerous topics in the news that would be excellent ways to examine how a short-sighted approach to history or just a general lack of knowledge of the past can cause contemporary men and women to make conclusions and assessments that might not be shared by someone with a little more knowledge of the past. The awkward Russian subversion of Ukraine can remind a reader of similar actions in places as distant in time and space as the German efforts to gain influence in Slovakia in the months leading up the World War II or even the CIA’s attempts to undermine a variety of pro-Soviet regimes during the Cold War in places like Chile, Congo, or Iran. The way the Chinese and Russian press are using the violent events in Ferguson, Missouri are very reminiscent of the way the Soviet Union would use American racial tensions in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to focus attention on the flaws of the United States while diverting attention from their own dubious human rights track records. However, it is not just the larger events that are great examples of the kinds of similarities (or perceived similarities) in history that this History Rhymer enjoys examining. In this months edition, we will look at a relatively minor event in a community in New Jersey that says a lot about our current political climate and the tendency for people to forget the rhyming events in our past. In this case, it is the renaming of a recreational center in Willingboro, New Jersey for President Barack Obama and the controversy that has resulted.
At a September 2, 2014 Willingboro city council meeting, the decision will be made on whether to change the name of a local recreation center and former school from the “Kennedy Center” to the “President Barack Obama Center.” In normal circumstances, the naming or renaming of a street, building, or even geographic location after a president or other elected official would not be a tremendously interesting topic for a History Rhyme. After all, it happens all the time. Every president from the very great (e.g. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) to the not-so-great (e.g. James Buchanan and Warren Harding) have had everything from plants to states named after them. Even most, if not all, of our vice presidents have been honored in a similar fashion. The current vice president, Joe Biden, has had a dwarf planet named after him. Even Franklin Pierce’s vice president, William Rufus de Vane King (who died before he ever made it to Washington D.C. or performed any of his official duties), had a county in Washington state named after him. The county was renamed in1986 after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but that still counts. However, since this is 2014 and the recipient of the honor is Barack Obama, it should be no surprise that someone is outraged in a very partisan manner. Two of the more colorful headlines to stories about the change are “Angry Reactions After Town Opts to Rename ‘Kennedy Center’ in Honor of Another President. (Hint: He’s Still Alive.)” from theBlaze.com; and “JFK Memorial Building To Honor Barack Obama Instead Because New Jersey City ‘Idolizes’ The President” from inquisitr.com. Although the mood of some local residents seem to be a mild form or opposition or even indifference, the online comments have been far from such views. The general tone of those comments, as seen in the comments section of a FoxNews.com story, concern the president’s unworthiness for such and honor (e.g. a person using the screen name your_kidding posting “I still don’t get it. He has done absolutely nothing useful.” or another using the screen name davestwin posting “The Barack Obama Unemployment/Disability Office (in every city) would be appropriate. Or how about having his face embossed on every SNAP’s card?”).
In addition to the posts in the comments section of the FoxNews.com story critical of the president, there are other posts that are of special interest to this edition of The History Rhyme. Those are the ones by avowed conservatives like the person using the screen name luvfreedomw68 who states that “To compare Obama with Kennedy is ludicrous and blasphemous. Not even close. Kennedy was a patriot and a gentleman,” or the person using the screen name azmanfromtx posting “Everybody is proud of JFK who has done more for this country than Obama every could.” However, the most interesting to me was the comment by the person using the screen name lydtoagin what asserted that the name change was because “JFK could not be welcome in Barry’s party.” Considering that the current Republican Party has moved to the right of Barry Goldwater, this last comment seems ill-considered at best. In any case, the positive views of Kennedy by these posters would imply that people did not oppose naming things after Kennedy in the aftermath of his assassination in 1963. While this is generally true, this History Rhyme will conclude with a short tale of when the “naming game” was not so favorable for our thirty-fifth president.
In the wake of the shocking assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, Texas in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson was seeking ways to honor the memory of the fallen president and at the same time gain support for his new administration by the American people. One of the ideas that LBJ had was to rename Cape Canaveral (the whole region – not just the space launch facility) after Kennedy. The idea had originated from the slain president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, but the scope of the change was all LBJ. On November 27th after just three hours of using the famous “Johnson treatment,” the new president was able to convince the Department of Interior’s Board of Geographic Names to rename the entire area Cape Kennedy. If we were to simply use the comments section entries to the various stories about renaming the Willingboro center, it would be unthinkable that someone would have opposed such a change. After all, even acknowledged Republicans love him now and think him worthy of such an honor. Certainly LBJ felt this way as shown in his fawning letter to Mrs. Kennedy when he noted that “I am delighted to see that the reaction at Cape Kennedy and at the Kennedy Space Center has been one of deep gratification. It is clear that once again you have hit with unerring taste on the right thing to do” (see note). However, looking at the newspapers of the time shows a different result. According to the Associated Press story of December 8, 1963 entitled “Cape Kennedy Remains Despite the Opposition” (which appeared in identical form in newspapers such as the Victoria (TX) Advocate and the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune) “many residents in Brevard County, in which the cape is located, protested the name change and flooded the desks of their congressman with telegrams and letters.” Local chamber of commerce groups protested the move and even the Florida Library and Historical Commission’s chairman stated that “the name of the geographical point – the cape – should not be changed.” The issue was not about whether Kennedy was deemed worthy or that naming the space center after him was inappropriate. Instead, it was that making such a wide-sweeping move to rename the whole area was more than locals wanted. Eventually, the geographical location would be rechristened Cape Canaveral in 1973 while the Kennedy Space Center remained to honor the president.
What can we learn from examining these two examples of playing the “name game” to honor our presidents? First, it tells us that it is unlikely that everyone will ever be pleased with the decision to honor someone by renaming an existing structure or location after them. If even renaming something after a popular president, who had just been assassinated in such a public way and whose memory had united the nation in the months after his death, would receive resistance; we should not be surprised that an effort to rename anything after an unpopular president in a deeply partisan nation would encounter even more resistance. Second, we can see that if a past leader is taken out of context, his accomplishments magnified, and his shortcomings ignored, it is easy to feel disappointment with our present leaders. In the case of the conservatives who praised Kennedy in the articles about the Willingboro center, it seems unlikely that they would have been so positive in their comments if Kennedy had been alive and was in office. Fortunately for those of us who love and appreciate the nuances of history, we can look at these events and see all that a study of the past has to offer for our understanding of our modern world. Keep looking and learning!
Note 1: Lyndon B, Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 19.
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