With a stroke, President Obama changed the name of Mount McKinley to “Denali.” “Denali” is an Indian name, or indigenous name. “McKinley,” obviously, is not. No doubt, Obama thought he was “bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” (He likes to use this phrase, borrowing from Martin Luther King, who borrowed it from Theodore Parker, an abolitionist pastor.)
White people have taken from the Indians a lot. It’s true. I can understand how Obama was unable to resist a symbolic gesture. I can’t help thinking, however, that these gestures are much, much easier than combating alcoholism, obesity, welfare dependence, a culture of perpetual grievance, and suicide.
Against “Denali,” poor William McKinley had no chance. He is a dead white male, and a Republican, to boot. And yet, to my sense, there was something unseemly — something unsporting — about removing the name of a president who was murdered.
Lincoln was murdered, too, of course, and many things are named after him — but he was great, as well as murdered. Garfield was murdered, and there is next to nothing named after him. Schoolkids probably don’t know about him. Everyone knows about John F. Kennedy, who, when murdered, was young and glamorous and fashionable. People used to call the international airport in New York “Idlewild” (after the golf course that the airport displaced). But since the assassination, it has been JFK.
Kennedy’s brother Robert was murdered, too. A full 40 years after the fact, the Triborough Bridge in New York was renamed for him: Officially, it is the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (though pretty much everybody still calls it “the Triborough”). I hope it’s not unseemly or unsporting to ask, “For how many decades will we feel the need to rename things after JFK and RFK?” In 2011, two years before he died, the Queensboro Bridge was renamed for Ed Koch, the former mayor — but not entirely renamed: It is, officially, the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
For years, I’ve teased a federal-judge friend of mine for working in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse. (He and I are both Republicans; Moynihan was not.) “How’s work going down at the Moynihan?” I’ll say. One day, my friend said sternly, “You know what the best name for a U.S. courthouse is? ‘U.S. Courthouse.’” That statement ought to be in Bartlett’s.
Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, had no shame, and his fellow West Virginians may not have had much either. More than 50 buildings in that state are named for Byrd, or for his wife, Erma Ora. If you seek Byrd’s monument, go to West Virginia and look about you.
Lest I seem an incorrigible partisan Republican — which I am — I’d like to record this: When the GOP Congress of the 1990s moved to rename Washington National Airport for Reagan, I opposed this move. I loved Reagan to an almost embarrassing extent. But I thought renaming the national airport for him was a finger in the eye to Democrats, roughly half the country. Besides which, what if they did something like that to us? How would I feel about Bill Clinton National Airport? (Bad.)
People tend to think that no one will ever get used to a new name. And then the world forgets the old name. When, in 2009, the Sears Tower became the Willis Tower, Chicagoans said, “We’ll never say ‘Willis.’ It will always be ‘Sears.’” Alternatively, they borrowed a famous line from a sitcom: “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” The truth is, “Sears” will sound as quaint as “Idlewild.” I have a friend in Chicago who will always say “Sears.” (In fact, he once worked in the tower.) His children, however, are bilingual: They say both “Sears” and “Willis,” depending on the audience. Their children will definitely not say “Sears.”
It was jarring to me in 1984 when the West African nation of Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. The new name sounded so . . . odd. Thirty years later, “Upper Volta” sounds not just dated but faintly racist or colonialist. There has been no “Siam” since about 1950; the country is Thailand. The old name lives only in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (though I very much like an American place-name: Siam, Ohio). “Formosa” may seem a condescending or insulting name for Taiwan — but, in Portuguese, the name means beautiful, which is no insult.
We are supposed to say “Mumbai,” not “Bombay.” Say “Bombay” to someone, and he may recoil, as though you had uttered a slur. In reality, there is a fierce debate among Indians about what to call that major city. A political and cultural debate. There are Indians, patriotic and proud, who would rather spit than say “Mumbai.” I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I have no patience for other palefaces who think they do.
Like you, maybe, I enjoy finding out about people whose names are on buildings, streets, or what have you. Those names are a link to the past. With his wife Liddie, the late historian Robert Conquest lived on Peter Coutts Circle near Stanford University. The first time I visited, I asked, “Who is or was Peter Coutts?” His face lighting up, Bob said, “You know, we’ve lived here for many years, and you’re only the second person to ask that.” I was flattered, I have to say. (The first to ask was an English-poet friend of the Conquests’. And “Peter Coutts” was the adopted name of a French financier who had some trouble after the Franco–Prussian War and found it convenient to flee his country.)
Last week, I was writing about wounded servicemen who are cared for at the Walter Reed center, outside Washington, D.C. I had forgotten, or never knew, who Walter Reed was. I looked him up: U.S. Army physician (1851–1902). Instrumental in combating yellow fever. His name has lasted on that institution for a long time (since 1909). Will it be removed one day, in favor of someone newer or in some respect more desirable?
Sometimes money is involved, of course. In the early 1970s, a man named Avery Fisher endowed the concert hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. So for all this time it has been “Avery Fisher Hall.” But the Lincoln Center people wanted to upgrade the place. To do that, they needed lots of money, and that meant an offer of “naming rights.” The Fisher family pitched a fit, and threatened legal action: They figured Avery’s name should be on the hall forever. Ultimately, they were paid off ($15 million), and Lincoln Center found a new donor: David Geffen, of Hollywood. He pledged $100 million, and, starting this season, the hall will be David Geffen Hall.
Across the plaza is the David H. Koch Theater, formerly the New York State Theater. In 2008, this Koch brother pledged — as Geffen would — $100 million. And he said that, after 50 years, his name could go. A half a century was enough. “A naming opportunity should be a defined length of time to allow the institution to regenerate itself with another round of major fundraising,” Koch said. Geffen has a different view — and has said that his name must be on the concert hall forever.
His fellow Democrats have long held Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. Those two men are the founders of the Democratic party. Recently, however, some Democratic groups have effaced the names of Jefferson and Jackson — because those men were slaveholders (and Jackson was also a brute to the Indians). The Republicans will obviously keep their Lincoln Day dinners.
“Washington, D.C.” presents a double whammy, for those who keep historical score, in the current fashion. George Washington was another slaveholder. And the “C” in “D.C.” relates to Christopher Columbus, the original sinner, according to the darkest view of America. What to do about President Obama’s alma mater, Columbia?
I felt a pang for McKinley, when his name came off the mountain. But I also recognize that nearly everything crumbles. Not long ago, I visited the Temple of Artemis, or Diana, in Turkey. This was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. People traveled from far and wide to see it. The sight of it may have crowned a life. When I got there, it was a garbagey nothing, with a stork nesting on a lone column. Rarely has the ephemerality of things been so impressed on me.
There will be some, no doubt, who will continue to call the mountain in Alaska “Mount McKinley.” (Politics, history, or culture aside, the alliteration is nice.) They will be a bit like Dartmouth alumni who continue to call their teams “the Indians” instead of the sanctioned “Big Green.”
Speaking of mountains, Everest was named after a Welshman, Colonel Sir George Everest, who was Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843. He objected to the naming of the mountain after himself, in part because those who lived in the region could not pronounce “Everest.” (Neither can we, in a sense: The colonel pronounced his name “Eve-rest,” rather than as the world later would.)
Who knows what this tallest and mightiest of peaks will be called in generations to come? Nothing lasts, everything crumbles. Although our Supreme Court may still permit me to quote the Bible — Isaiah: “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee.”