Chalk one up for the forces of virtue and light in Washington.
Virtue and light in Washington, D.C.? Thought those were museum relics, didn't you? Well, you're right. Here's the story.
Once upon a time a very rich and very self-made lady named Catherine B. Reynolds gave the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History a big present - $38 million.
The money was intended to fund a 10,000-square-foot building called Spirit of America, an inspiring hall of fame that would tell the stories of American "achievers." Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart were among the "achievers" Mrs. Reynolds had in mind. And she intended to have plenty of control over the project.
But lo and behold, curators and scholars in and out of the Smithsonian objected, as did lots of amateur museumgoers. And they objected loudly. So this week, Mrs. Reynolds took her money and went home.
And that is the happy ending.
I hope Mrs. Reynolds keeps achieving and builds her museum - somewhere else, anywhere else; just not at the National Museum of American History, on the Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
We have had enough – too much—of corporatized, privatized, egotized naming of public places. Just ask the Houston Astros, who played at Enron Stadium.
Did you know that the official name of the Smithsonian's history museum is now the National Museum of American History, Behring Center? It is, because one Mr. Kenneth Behring gave (or is in the process of giving) the museum $100 million.
The first thing you usually see upon entering the Museum of American History is the giant flag that Francis Scott Key wrote about – the Star-Spangled Banner. Now a sign that says the Banner is down for preservation work paid for with "major support from Polo Ralph Lauren" dominates the entrance vista.
The Polo Ralph Lauren Star-Spangled Banner at the Behring Center. It's gross.
National museums shouldn't be prime real estate for advertising. They shouldn't have For Sale signs. What's next? The Miracle-Gro/United States Department of Agriculture? The Blockbuster Grand Canyon at Starbucks National Park? The Senate Chamber brought to you by Red Bull energy drink? Etc., etc.
In the Reynolds v. Smithsonian case, the evildoer is Congress. If it appropriated our national museums decent funding, the Smithsonian wouldn't have to suck up for private cash. After all, $38 million isn't even enough to fund a decent West Virginia pork barrel project. Even a $100 million in one year is change in the cracks of the budget couch.
The content of our national museums shouldn't be dictated by what people like Mr. Behring and Mrs. Reynolds are willing to pay for and what Ralph Lauren and Michael Eisner want to advertise on, no matter how generous and noble the donors are.
If they want to give anonymously, with no strings attached, that's great. Otherwise, they should keep their money or build their own museums or donate to museums that aren't on the Mall and aren't, in theory at least, "ours."
When Mrs. Reynolds took her toys and went home, another big Washington donor, Jim Kimsey, a founder of AOL, said, "As a donor, I want to hold the institution accountable for what they did with my money."
As a donor (a little, tiny donor), my feelings are exactly the opposite. I wouldn't give money to an institution I don't trust to spend the money wisely on its own.
As a taxpayer, I don't like to see hunks of my national museums auctioned off. The donation from Mrs. Reynolds became so controversial mostly because her vision was so different from the vision of the people who work there. (Reporter Bob Thompson has written an exhaustive chronicle of the battle in The Washington Post Magazine.)
The museum establishment saw the Spirit of America idea as an unsophisticated, preachy bit of capitalist boosterism with a politically incorrect and uninteresting focus on biographies of conventional success stories. Mrs. Reynolds, in her words, wanted to show "the power f the individual to make a difference" and felt the museum staff believed that "only movements and institutions make a difference, not individuals."
I have both sympathy and antipathy for both sides. The most important expert I turn to on the controversy is Daniel Meyer, age seven. The American History museum is his favorite museum, perhaps his favorite place in Washington. His visits there (and visits and visits) have tangibly helped him to have a vivid, imaginative and fun-filled interest in American history.
I have absolutely no fear that pop culture and regular, old school will expose Daniel to plenty of biographies of American "achievers" like Michael Jordan. But where else can he see cases full of cavalry swords and muskets, cavernous rooms full of locomotives and cotton gins, Dorothy's ruby slippers and Archie Bunker's chair? I just wish Congress would give the Smithsonian enough money to build satellite museums in other cities and fill it with treasures it now has in warehouses.
Daniel (and many grown-ups I imagine) is not especially interested in the rather more scholarly and narrow exhibits that some of the big donors object to, such as "The Feather Trade and the American Conservation Movement" or "Artificial Anatomy: Papier-Mache Anatomical Models." The main exhibit about the Constitution focuses entirely on the internment of Japaese Americans during World War II and I can well understand why that has been criticized as being too politically correct and self-flagellating.
But there's no need to take sides in this dispute to learn its lesson: a donation is not a purchase and some things should not be up for sale.
E-mail your questions and comments to Against the Grain
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
By Dick Meyer