I am not a Protestant, but the first time I saw St. Peter’s, I felt I understood why Luther got so riled and started the Reformation. It wasn’t the grandeur of the basilica or the square that scandalized me. If I were religious, I’d be all for celebrating my faith with man-made beauty. What offended me was the giant inscription across the top of façade, right there over the front door, reminding us that it had been built by Pope Paul V.
Hey, I remember thinking, shouldn’t somebody else’s name be up there?
A few years later I was lucky enough to get a grant to study abroad for a year. The grant was (and still is) named for a famous American politician. During my stay in the “host country,” the politician’s widow paid a visit, and a reception was held in her honor. A number of short speeches and toasts were made praising and thanking the late politician, which the lady naturally soaked up with pleasure. Afterwards many approached to shake her hand and again say thanks.
I was then, as I am now, hugely grateful for my year abroad, which remains one of the happiest and richest in my life. Yet I couldn’t help think, as I listened that evening to the encomia for our benefactor, of Thomas Mallon’s words in a similar context. He was at a re-election campaign rally for Senator Claiborne Pell (“the late Senator Claiborne Pell,” I was just about to write, then checked the indispensable Dead or Alive? website and learned he turned 84 last month), and as speaker after speaker thanked the Senator for the Pell Grants which made it possible for low-income students to go to college, Mallon thought to himself: “But it’s your money!”
Shouldn’t there be a law against legislators turning government projects into multi-million dollar re-election campaign ads? It’s no mystery why there isn’t such a law. The mystery is why there aren’t more examples of this sort of thing. Why doesn’t every congressman or senator with a friend on an appropriations committee have a bridge or dam or highway named after him by now?
Of course there’s always Senator Robert Byrd to make up for all those who missed their opportunities. There’s a statue of the senator in the rotunda of the West Virginia state capitol. His home state also hosts the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam, the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia, the Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Center, the Robert C. Byrd Technology Center at Alderson-Broaddus College, and at least 20 others. In per capita terms, I’ll bet West Virginians have more monuments to their senior senator than Iraqis have to Saddam Hussein.
Ashkenazic Jewish tradition, I am told, discourages naming a child after any living person. Supposedly this is to make sure that the angel of death, when he comes to pick up the older namesake, won’t walk off with the baby instead. I like this tradition because it spares the feelings of all the relatives who would have been overlooked, and keeps everyone from getting a big head.