No one ever went broke overestimating the ability of a politician to choose gesture over substance. As if we needed any more evidence of Washington's distorted priorities, President Bush and Congress have handed us a truly monumental new example. And this one will be hard to hide.
The House and the Senate passed a bill last month ordering the construction of the hotly debated National World War II Memorial, despite both a pending lawsuit against it and the National Capital Planning Commission's unanimous decision to find a more acceptable site and design. If the well-armed memorial partisans have their way, ground will be broken as soon as the Fourth of July activities on the National Mall are completed.
Faster than you can say "mom and apple pie," the president signed the bill into law, citing the fact that veterans of the Big War are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day. "Of the 16 million men and women who served, barely 5 million remain," he said. "It is more important than ever that we move quickly to begin construction if those who served are to see the nation's permanent expression of remembrance and thanks."
The absurdity of this statement was underlined by the anguished complaints of veterans associations over the complete inadequacy of the president's budget when it comes to meeting the pressing needs of their members. So rather than symbolizing our eternal honoring of the vets' past sacrifice, the memorial represents a dishonoring of the vets who are currently suffering.
"This is nothing short of budgetary strangulation that threatens the health and welfare of America's veterans," Armando Albarran, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans, said. I can just hear the spinmeisters at the White House arguing that the lack of access to much-needed healthcare will only speed up the rate at which our World War II heroes are dying -- making it all the more urgent to break ground on the memorial without delay.
Only convoluted reasoning such as this could explain why a gargantuan granite monument would be a higher priority than improved healthcare and housing or increased benefits for veterans.
The monument on the mall was projected to cost $100 million when the winning design was announced in 1997. Now the estimate is $160 million and rising.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, who, when he's not pushing Viagra or drooling over Britney Spears, is national chairman of the memorial project, has been raising money at a feverish pace. He even managed to get himself and fellow "Greatest Generation" vets Sens. John Warner and Daniel Inouye booked to sit in the hot seat opposite Regis Philbin on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to help raise funds. It took the Senate Ethics Committee to mercifully pull the plug on this cheesy spectacle. Unfortunately, the committee has no jurisdiction over Pepsi commercials.
Such lapses of good taste permeate everything about this memorial -- especially the design. Hear the critics rave: "a garish, expensive, tasteless exercise," "a product of the Albert Speer school of architecture," "a digitized backdrop, like the Coliseum in 'Gladiator,'" "a blot on the mall," "a monument to the Pentagon, designed by Costco," and "as soulless as a food court."
If the tacky design isn't enough, its placement guarantees that one of Washington's grandest and most inspirational vistas will be forever sundered by installing a little bit of Las Vegas smack-dab in the center of it. And trust me, once it's there, it will take World War III to get rid of it.
Soullessness is at the heart of this entire undertaking. Only somebody with a piece of granite in place of a soul would ignore the real needs of live -- and suffering -- veterans, focusing instead on the quick, though costly, fix of Praising Private Ryan.
What meaning is there in "a permanent expression of remembrance" when, in dozens of everyday but more meaningful ways, we are demonstrating our willingness to forget?
Here are just a few of the things we are forgetting when we make an edifice to the dead and dying more important than our obligation to honor the living: There are more than 275,000 chronically homeless veterans, and roughly 500,000 veterans find themselves homeless at some time during the year -- yet the Department of Veterans Affairs is able to help less than 10 percent of them.
Nurses working at V.A. hospitals have gone four years without a cost-of-living raise, causing more and more of them to quit -- and making it almost impossible to keep the facilities properly staffed. And despite fulsome campaign promises from National Guardsman W. about upgrading services, it still takes the V.A. an average of 205 days to process an application for benefits.
So far, the controversy over the World War II Memorial has centered on the aesthetics of the design and the environmental impact it would have -- critics claim it will cause arsenic-contaminated groundwater to be pumped all over the Lincoln Memorial and might even eventually topple the Washington Monument.
These are obviously important concerns. But they pale when compared with our national indifference to the plight of veterans who walk among us.
Instead of building feel-good memorials, shouldn't we be rebuilding lives?