By Froma Harrop
Fly from Atlanta to Houston, and you may start at an airport named after two mayors and land at one named for a president. While in the air, you pass over hundreds of bridges, roadways and public buildings — all honoring politicians, alive or dead.
The pantheon of great Americans is well populated. Many, if not most, members have never been politicians. The noteworthy include writers, scientists, educators, war heroes and entrepreneurs.
But politicians control the naming process. They are apparently not embarrassed to paint the tags of cronies, undistinguished judges and even themselves on projects paid for by the taxpayers. Shouldn’t this bother more people?
Poetic or descriptive names are ripped off to make way for “Senator Phogbound” in big letters. The process sometimes involves addition rather than replacement, leading to tongue fatigue: Atlanta Municipal Airport becomes Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Houston Intercontinental Airport becomes George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Drivers heading north on Manhattan’s FDR Drive encounter a sign advising them that “the Triboro Bridge is now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.” Triboro (short for Triborough) was a useful name because the complex bridge connects three boroughs, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. It had been in place for over seven decades.
Kennedy’s relationship with New York, meanwhile, was short and utilitarian. After his brother President John Kennedy was assassinated, Robert left Washington, D.C., for New York to run for the U.S. Senate. Many New Yorkers regarded him as an opportunistic carpetbagger. Despite their liberal leanings and grief over the recent loss of JFK, Bobby only squeaked through a victory.
Kennedy represented New York for four years of a six-year term when he announced that he would run for president. He was assassinated during the campaign.
Bobby Kennedy’s service to New York had been brief and 40 years ago, but state political leaders recently traded the familiar Triboro name for another Kennedy family advertisement. Then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed the change as he was considering Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Bobby’s son) as a replacement for Sen. Hillary Clinton, had she been elected president. When President Obama made Clinton secretary of state, Caroline Kennedy unsuccessfully tried to get the seat.
In 1998, Republicans forced the name of Ronald Reagan onto Washington National Airport. Civic leaders in the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia opposed the move, noting that Reagan already had a huge federal office building named after him. They lost, and the name grew to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The public sometimes rises up and wrests back a beloved name. When the NASA space center on Cape Canaveral was named for John Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson decided to change the whole cape’s geographical designation to Cape Kennedy. Under local pressure, the Florida legislature restored the 400-year-old Spanish name Cape Canaveral. (JFK’s name does remain on the New York airport, once romantically known as Idlewild.)
Some politicians get taxpayer-funded projects named after themselves. The Centers for Disease Control campus in Atlanta has two major new additions — the Arlen Specter Headquarters and Emergency Operations Center and the Thomas R. Harkin Global Communications Center. Sens. Specter and Harkin presided over bills that fund the CDC.
But no one beats West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in self-aggrandizement with public money. More than 30 federal projects in West Virginia bear his name, including two U.S. courthouses, several highways and a major bridge.
Go ahead and name things after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt or other illustrious public servants. But give non-politicians equal opportunity to be so honored. And, finally, do not forget that place names are names.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.