The Naming Game

Posted July 15, 2003 at 4:43pm

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has good ideas for limiting the rampant naming of Capitol Hill buildings, rooms, suites and balconies after recent Senate luminaries. But his proposals don’t go far enough. Moreover, the House should consider similar restrictions. And Congress should “sunset” the naming of other federal buildings.

Dodd, ranking member on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, has introduced a bill prohibiting the naming of any structure on the Senate side after any person until he or she has been dead for at least five years. And, 25 years after enactment of his legislation, he would strip the names from the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings, other spaces such as the Dole Balcony and any Senate space in the Capitol Visitors Center.

We think that the five-year rule makes sense. As Dodd spokesman Marvin Fast told Roll Call, memorials “shouldn’t be driven by current passions or politics, but by well-thought-out criteria that recognize both our past and the future.” But reconsideration of the names on buildings and rooms shouldn’t be delayed for 25 years. And it shouldn’t be limited to the Senate.

Reconsideration should commence right away on the naming of the Russell and Dirksen buildings, which got their billing 31 years ago, in 1972, shortly after the deaths of Sens. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.). The lone dissenter, ironically, was Sen. Phillip Hart (D-Mich.), after whom his colleagues named the third Senate office building as he was dying of cancer in 1976.

When the Russell and Dirksen buildings were named, Hart made the crucial point that’s valid today: “I thought we had learned that it is unwise to anticipate history’s verdict.” He said it was a mistake to memorialize recently deceased “friends” as opposed to others who were departed longer.

In line with Hart’s argument, we think the Senate should at least consider renaming buildings after other distinguished Senators, perhaps Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Lyndon B. Johnson or Hubert Humphrey.

The renaming issue has surfaced because of a campaign led by comedian/civil rights activist Dick Gregory to strip the Russell Building of its name owing to the Georgia segregationist’s 31-year record of opposition to measures to ban lynching, the poll tax and other instruments of white supremacy in the South. We sympathize with Gregory’s campaign.

We’d also like to see the FBI headquarters building renamed, given former Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous history of unconstitutional behavior.

But independent of specific cases, Congress is becoming profligate in slapping the names of recent office-holders on Washington buildings. Measures need to be taken to ensure they’re not there permanently, unless they deserve to be.