Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

What the Ronald Reagan statue at the DCA airport says about D.C. autonomy

November 1, 2011 - 03:40 PM
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Behind the statue you can see the bold letters of the former president's name spelled out under the sleek visage of an eagle. 13 Photos
(Photo: John Hendel/TBD)

Former president Ronald Reagan, who sat in the Oval Office from 1981 to 1989 and died in 2004, now stares out at travelers to the region's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). His lips curl into what's not quite a smile but an expression of warmth and welcome nonetheless. His bronze limbs look lean. His feet tilt into a stance that looks ready to step forward. His suit looks sharp and one button seals the coat. The man's entire body, of course, is composed of bronze, and this new visage of Reagan stands at nine feet tall and weighs more than 900 pounds — it's an image now visible to all travelers outside of Terminal A in our local airport across the Potomac river. Reagan would have turned 100 years old in February of 2011, and the statue is one in the latest of a series of honors, in cities from Budapest to London to this airport that bears Reagan's name. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation has sought to place a statue at the 70-year-old airport since 2007.

"America recognizes its heroes in very special ways," said Fred Ryan, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, to the gathered crowd at this morning's unveiling ceremony. He emphasized how this new statue stood as a "tribute" to Reagan's legacy, one that continues the airport's name change in 1998, when both houses of Congress came together to change the decades-old name of Washington National Airport to Reagan National. "And it was signed into law by a Democratic president," Ryan declared.

Yet the name change reflects a damning and unfortunate reality about our nation's capital that's festered into a cause célèbre in recent years — the District lacks federal representation in Congress, and Ryan was talking about our airport.

Yes, Congress and the president did declare it should bear the name of the still-living former Republican president then, but many D.C. residents are hardly thrilled about the fact. Nor would any advocate of the District's autonomy be thrilled to recall how Congress pressured WMATA to change the name of the airport's Metro station. In the last decade, Congress pushed WMATA to rename the Washington National Airport Metro stop to match the new airport. They succeeded and the Metro stop is now known as the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport station. The cost of renaming was estimated at $400,000. Why would the District itself, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, elect to change the name of its airport to reflect a still-living two-term Republican president? The name change as well as the statue's installation today marks another revealing blow that the District has little say about its local airport and even the airport's WMATA station.

I've known more than a few locals who prefer to not even say "Reagan" when talking about the airport. They'll keep their words to "DCA" or "National." Mayor Vince Gray has embraced the idea of D.C.'s home rule at every change he can get, from marches to Hayden Panettiere Day, and even yesterday decried "ill-advised and unnecessary" legislation proposed by the House of Representatives' Darrell Issa (R-California), who wants to bring our city's hiring background checks under federal control.

The crowd watched his every word, leaning forward at the statue then covered in a dark blue cloth. In full disclosure, Ryan also acts as vice-chairman of Allbritton Communications Company, which owns this website. But this morning he acted to honor Reagan's legacy. How unfortunate that the legacy still creates complications for D.C. transportation. As Metro considers how to rename its stations and shorten many of them, just look at these recent Greater Greater Washington comments from this fall — one laments the idea that a federal body would require a "clunky" station name of 41 characters.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as well as former Reagan administration transportation secretaries Elizabeth Dole and James Burnley stood and spoke beside the tribute to the country's former leader. Even former GOP senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole was there, posing with his wife beside the statue. "Elizabeth! Touch the statue!" one woman shouted at the former Reagan transportation secretary. After multiple calls to do so, Elizabeth Dole reached up and clasped the statue's hand. Everywhere there were cameras, everywhere microphones, everywhere people clicking a cell-phone pic and hoping to grasp what stood before them. Few seemed bothered by the legacy of what the statue represented to advocates of District home rule.

But the image of the newly unveiled Reagan statue bore symbolic placement at DCA.

To the left of the statue rose the long stretch of Metro track. Occasionally a train would roar by on its way to or from the federally-named WMATA station, forcing officials at the Reagan statue to pause and wait.

To the right, you could see the airport's historic Terminal A building in the distance beyond the flapping of an American flag. The exterior of the building featured not the renamed airport name but the old one — "Washington National Airport," emblazoned on the white surface. 

How reasonable are these federally controlled actions and dictations until D.C. has its own voice in our nation's government? The federal government mandates the name of our local airport and of its associated Metro station and now we have a giant cheerful Reagan statue standing as a testament to these changes. This is the face that travelers from all over the world will see when they visit America's capital. Whether or not the airport and station should bear the former president's name, the decision, it seems to me, should have involved the beliefs of the rest of the people living in the District and Arlington County, where DCA is located (despite having a D.C. address and falling under federal control). Despite all the cheering and accolades on the field outside DCA today, those are the underlying issues I can't stop considering. The statue not only serves as a tribute to Reagan's presidency and legacy — it's a stark, sad reminder of the capital city's struggle for home rule.

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