Channelling my inner Andy Rooney, it seems to me that the messier and more contentious our politics gets, the bigger the egos. Hubris has been
on full display lately. Don’t the names Newt Gingrich and Donal Trump resonate with that? I’ve had some fun from time to time mocking the egos of English royalty, because their job is all about image. Whenever I think about them, the memory of a skit by Carol Burnette, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway comes irresistibly to mind. Clearly, people have a need to imagine that their country and their leaders are of superior quality and the sight of royalty on parade seems to help that along. (Not to mention that the Royals are the country’s main tourist attraction.) But image does help. I was impressed yesterday to see an image of the Queen sealing an historical image by shaking hands with the leader of the Irish Republican Army, apparently ending an era of visceral hatred between political blocs.
Here in the colonies, politicians have to polish their own images without the help of royalty. It is really quite clever of the Brits to keep the Royals apolitical since they generally view their politicians like we do, on a par with pond scum, or at least those of one’s party’s opposition. In my lifetime I can only recall two presidents whom the public esteemed so highly as to approach royalty, Kennedy and Reagan. Neither deserved it by virtue of his works in my opinion, but they had that special quality that over-rode reality. Reagan raised taxes and had Iran Contra, and Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But it didn’t matter, they were both Teflon-coated.
Image is something always under political construction and one of the principal means of embellishing both the person and his political party is to name big public things after him. Back in the day, Americans were so carried away with John Kennedy’s Camelot image that they not only named the space-port after him but converted the name of Cape Canaveral to Cape Kennedy, quietly reversing that decision later when sanity set in. A similar mania prevailed for Reagan who not only got an airport but an aircraft carrier named for him while he was still alive. I guess that set a precedent because the pols got the same two things for George H. W. Bush, even though he was a little more Teflon-challenged than Reagan. (“Read my lips, no new taxes.”) Even Jimmy Carter got a ship, likely through partisan pay-back. On the other hand, presidents who get impeached apparently don’t get that treatment. So far there is no USS Bill Clinton.
I have a problem with naming stuff for people because all people are flawed and their accomplishments are invariably viewed by history as mixed at best after enough time has passed. Maybe with the exception of George Washington. But, I don’t doubt that he had his faults too. Probably made children with slaves, destroyed whole orchards of cherry trees, and who knows what else, but he was smart enough to stay above petty politicking and limit his oration. In any case, the perceived glory usually fades and people forget why some things were named as they were. Who was Love Field in Dallas named for? How many people know the story behind naming O’Hare airport in Chicago? But the naming thing has been going on for a long time and will likely continue. Just think of all the guys out there named Mohammad.
There used to be a fairly strict protocol for ship naming,but it seems to be fading even as our politics become more rancorous. As some politician said about naming submarines after cities and states instead of fish, “Fish don’t vote.” When I first went into the Navy I had the notion that U.S. ships were never named for living people, but it turns out that the pols have always tinkered with that protocol so much you can’t even call it a
rule. Conveniently, Wikipedia has a historical list of ships named for living people and it’s a pretty long one. It has some interesting links to other articles about ship naming as well. Heck, I was shocked to learn that even Gabrielle Giffords got a ship. It’s getting so that if you don’t get a ship, you weren’t successful. Makes me think of the comedian Red Buttons who often appended to his jokes a wistful, ” . . . and he didn’t get a dinner!”