In an otherwise depressing day of Washington nonsense, it was a story to warm your heart: Two groups of World War II veterans were able to spend some time Tuesday at the National World War II Memorial, despite the fact that the memorial was closed due to the government shutdown.
But it turns out the whole episode may have a lot to do with Washington brinksmanship after all.
The 140 or so elderly vets, from Mississippi and Iowa, arrived in Washington on long-planned "Honor Flights" — heavily subsidized tours of Washington memorials for the wars the vets served in. When they encountered the fence around the WWII monument, they were greeted by a group of Republican lawmakers who helped them cut the tape and move the barriers that sealed the grounds, with park rangers looking on.
GOP Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Steven Palazzo (Miss.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and the other Republicans there had a point to make: Why did President Obama try to keep the WWII heroes out of their monument in the first place? Palazzo tells The Daily Caller that he even asked the White House for special waivers for the vets, but was brushed aside with a curt "It's a government shutdown, what do you expect?"
The Republican National Committee and conservative media have jumped on the story, too. "Putting up barriers around open outdoor monuments was dumb shutdown theater," writes Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, "and they deserve to have it backfire on them."
The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta points to a theory for why the WWII memorial, along with every other open-air monument in Washington's Mall, has been closed to the public: Washington Monument Syndrome. Here's Wikipedia's definition:
The Washington Monument syndrome, also known as the Mount Rushmore Syndrome, or the firemen first principle, is a political tactic used in the United States by government agencies when faced with budget cuts or a government shutdown. The tactic entails cutting the most visible or appreciated service provided by the government, from popular services such as national parks and libraries to valued public employees such as teachers and firefighters.... The name derives from the National Park Service's alleged habit of saying that any cuts would lead to an immediate closure of the wildly popular Washington Monument. [Wikipedia]
Conservatives lobbed the same accusation at the Obama administration when it closed down White House tours in March, citing budget cuts mandated under sequestration. The charge is that Obama is trying to make Republicans look bad by focusing budget cuts on the places most noticeable to average citizens.
Is it a fair charge, though? National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson says that the agency is furloughing some 330 park rangers and workers assigned to the Mall — as well as Johnson herself — leaving just the Park Police to guard the monuments and memorials. Technically, the entire Mall will be closed, but "NPS doesn't have enough barricades to mark off the entire expanse," notes Washingtonian's Benjamin Freed.
"We have been getting quite a few calls from Honor Flights and have had to let them know that the memorial will be closed and the fountain will be off, that the Mall is legally closed," Johnson told The Washington Post on Monday.
"Park Service did not want to barricade these, but unfortunately we have been directed, because of the lack of appropriations, to close all facilities and grounds," Johnson told CNN on Tuesday. "I know that this is an open-air memorial, but we have people on staff who are CPR trained, (and) we want to make sure that we have maintenance crew to take care of any problems. What we're trying to do is protect this resource for future generations."
And the Washington monuments aren't alone. The National Park Service is furloughing 21,379 of its 24,645 employees and closing all 401 national parks, museums, battlefields, and other tourist draws under its care.
The Huffington Post's Sam Stein finds the idea that this is a stunt laughable:
It's as if Obama is standing over a map of the nation's parks and monuments and maniacally weighing how many tourists he can screw over
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) October 2, 2013
Either way, the Obama team isn't the first to shut down popular national parks or the Washington Mall during a budgetary lapse.
The World War II Memorial wasn't around in 1995-96, but the National Park Service shut down the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and other Washington tourist attractions during those shutdowns, keeping out an estimated two million visitors. That was on Bill Clinton's watch, but the practice is bipartisan: In the brief Columbus Day shutdown of 1990, George H.W. Bush shut down Washington's monuments and museums, too.
And if getting the public attention's was the point, it worked. "Once the shutdowns began, the reaction from people who wanted access to the parks was absolutely incredible," Bruce Babbitt, who was the interior secretary during the '95 and '96 shutdowns, told the San Jose Mercury News on Monday.
"The park closures in 1995 made a tangible difference," agreed Joan Anzelmo, then spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park. "The visual of park rangers closing down national parks, closing down the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument — keeping Americans out of these iconic American sites — those visuals were really a strong factor in people understanding what a government shutdown meant. People got mad."
Republicans are aware of this, which is one reason why you'll probably hear a lot about those World War II vets. "The politics of the shutdown has so far appeared to favor Democrats," say BuzzFeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro, Jacob Fischler, and Benny Johnson, but "the memorial protests could serve as a flashpoint that turns public opinion against the White House."