Is statue-toppling a monumental error?

By Gail Collins and Bret Stephens

Gail Collins: Bret, long ago I wrote a trillion-part Fourth of July series of interviews with New Yorkers who were involved in the celebration of the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday.

The rule was that each piece had to be an interview with someone whose ancestors came through Ellis Island from a different country. That was pretty easy for the first 10 parts or so, but after a while it was definitely a challenge.

So I have a long-standing interest in statue issues. You’ve just written about the pulling-down-Andrew-Jackson controversy. Let’s talk a bit about your conclusions.

Bret: My basic criterion when it comes to deciding whether a statue should stay or go is whether the person on the pedestal worked for or against a more perfect union, to borrow that beautiful phrase from the preamble to the Constitution. Figures like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should come down because they worked for disunion, not union. On the other hand, I’m appalled by the defacement of the magnificent Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston, which commemorates the bravery of one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army, just as I’m disgusted by the protesters who pulled down the statue of Ulysses Grant in San Francisco.

Gail: I’ve always had a soft spot for Ulysses. He was ahead of his time on racial issues, although that would still make him way behind our 21st-century understanding.

Bret: We need to find a way to balance present-day moral judgments with some appreciation that the past is another country.

As for Jackson, my view is that, on balance, he worked for a more perfect union. This is in no way to deny the fact that he was a slaveholder or ignore his atrocious role in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. But the modern Democratic Party, with its profoundly egalitarian impulses, would have probably been impossible without Jackson. And the Union might have perished long before Abraham Lincoln came to power if Jackson hadn’t opposed nullification and its champion, John C. Calhoun, as forcefully as he did.

What’s your take on Old Hickory? Gail: Well, I’m pretty sure if I met him, I wouldn’t like him.

Ditto all those Founding Fathers from Virginia who fought for their liberty while owning slaves.

They knew slavery was evil — as Thomas Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But Jefferson didn’t do anything about it either.

Bret: You’ll be happy to know I was a Hamilton guy long before “Hamilton.”

Gail: Wow, I can’t remember life before “Hamilton.” But about Jefferson? We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but does that mean we celebrate the author? Who wanted a nation that was free for white people but protected the right of slave owners to keep and control their property forever? Great men are never perfect, but how do we decide if their good outweighs the bad? Bret: I put a lot of weight in what Abraham Lincoln said of the third president: “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Gail: I know you’re right but I still hold a grudge. This is a guy who warned his daughter not to go outside without a bonnet “because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much.”

Bret: Great public men are often horrid private men. I can think of a few Kennedys who fit that description.

Gail: Yeah and some of them got statues. But I do like the idea of having historic commissions that check into these things. Not just because some of the alleged heroes have enormous flaws, but also because a lot of them have pretty much slipped out of history. I pass a guy on horseback every time I walk my dog, and I never can remember his name. He seems to have gotten the monument because sometime long ago, local German Americans wanted a statue to a German American.

Bret: I’m guessing you mean Franz Sigel, an incompetent Union general who recruited a lot of German-speaking immigrants. He wound up getting what he deserved: a job in journalism.

Gail: Ouch.

Bret: I’m happy with the idea of commissions, if only because they’re a much better way of doing things than having angry mobs vandalize public property with zero deliberation or debate. Too bad the Republican Party didn’t have a commission to pick its 2016 presidential nominee, as opposed to a different kind of angry mob that also wanted to vandalize public property.

Gail: Commissions rule. For the minute. Bret: Speaking of which, I was much struck by my former colleague Peggy Noonan’s latest column in The Wall Street Journal, “The Week It Went South for Trump.” Peggy nailed the 2016 race, and I think she might have nailed the 2020 race with this line: “The real picture at the Tulsa rally was not the empty seats so much as the empty faces — the bored looks, the yawning and phone checking.” She’s right: The evil Trump spell is broken, even with many of his rank-and-file. He’s gonna lose, unless Biden totally blows it.

Gail: I agree, but nervously. We’re all haunted by the specter of 2016. One thing I worry about is all the Republicans who know Trump is an abomination but can’t bring themselves to say they’d vote for a Democrat. Even John Bolton — after all that traipsing around telling stories about how awful the president is — says he’s going to write in some other name. Ditto Mitt Romney.

I certainly don’t have any influence over those folks, but can’t you do something to turn them around?

Bret: If Bernie Sanders had been the nominee, I’d be writing in someone’s name, too. President Johannes Brahms has a nice ring to it. But the idea that a Biden presidency would be a threat to the Republic is laughable: It would be a return to politics as we used to know it before the proverbial sacking of Rome.

My pitch to the Romneys and Boltons of the world is simple: In order for their vision of sane conservatism to win, Trump’s insane vision must lose so decisively that it will be politically destroyed and morally repudiated by the broad majority of Republicans themselves. The bigger Biden’s margin of victory in November, the better it will be for normal conservatives in future Novembers. A vote for Biden now is a vote for a GOP that has a future — in a country that has a future.

Gail: Bret, you’re the perfect Biden pitchman. Really, you deserve a statue. Bret: Only if it is made of plastic and fits in a shoe box, Gail.

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