Think back to your career as a third-grader, and take the following multiple-choice test:
Which one doesn't belong:
A. George Washington
B. Thomas Jefferson
C. Abraham Lincoln
D. Franklin Roosevelt
E. Ronald Reagan
You got it. The first two are our principal Founding Fathers. Lincoln saved the country from itself. FDR threw himself into the breach twice, giving the country the confidence it could survive the Great Depression and leading the free world against the century's most direct threat to democratic government.
Reagan, meanwhile, did . . . what? There are those who say he won the Cold War by forcing the former Soviet Union to spend itself into oblivion by trying to keep pace with our defense buildup. But that's still something open to debate. Some historians maintain that the U.S.S.R. was a rotten tree that was about to topple, anyway.
Reagan was decent, likable and a tremendously effective speaker. But does that legacy merit a monument on the National Mall in Washington?
Well, that's the plan of a House committee. Its members want to build a monument to the 40th president on the Mall, where memorials to four indisputably great leaders already stand. But history has already rendered a clear verdict on those men. Reagan has been out of office only 12 years. The historical perspective that any national memorial demands is inevitably lacking. We don't really know what Reagan's impact has been, other than to bloat the national debt. There are rules that govern this subject, and we should follow them.
The Commemorative Works Act says no memorial to an individual should be approved until 25 years after the person's death. Reagan is still alive.
Backers of this plan, eager to ensconce the hero of the conservative right in a place of national honor, are going too fast. They are cheapening the meaning of such a memorial and opening that door to give every popular president a place that should be reserved for only a few. If Reagan deserves a place on the Mall, history will make that clear. There's no reason to rush.