Fixing What Ain't Broke in Alaska

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John G. Schmitz, the colorful and quotable arch-conservative who represented Orange County in Washington and Sacramento from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, was asked whether he objected to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Red China.

Schmitz was the right guy to ask. A fierce critic of the People’s Republic of China, Schmitz’s congressional district included San Clemente, meaning that the man in the White House, a fellow Republican, was his constituent—a constituent whom Schmitz had accused of “surrendering to international communism.” Schmitz also has a devilish wit.

 “I have no objection to President Nixon going to China,” he deadpanned. “I just object to his coming back.”

President Obama’s visit to Alaska last week evoked similar sentiments in some quarters. Couldn’t he just stay up there? Part of this was envy, as the president seamlessly combined work and pleasure. He sampled salmon jerky, toured a fjord, hiked a glacier, petted Iditarod sled dogs, drew attention to melting snowcaps, and renamed a mountain. Not just any mountain, either; the highest peak in North America. One named after a U.S. president—and a martyred president at that.

I’ve been to Alaska and visited the national park that encompasses the landmark in question. Officially, the park was called Denali, and the peak Mount McKinley—at least until Obama arrived. Now they’re both named Denali. Although this makes historic and cultural sense, it irks many Republicans. But they aren’t the only ones who should view Obama’s geographical adventurism with skepticism.

For starters, the Obama administration ruined a reasonable political compromise. The Denali-McKinley issue isn’t a partisan fuss, which is rare in politics these days. It’s a regional dispute, pitting Ohio Republicans vs. Alaskans of most political persuasions.

It all goes back to 1917, when Congress created Mount McKinley National Park. Or maybe the rumpus traces back to when the great mountain was first called McKinley. The year was 1896, a presidential election year, and pitted William McKinley, an Ohio Republican, against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The big national issue then was whether the United States should remain on the gold standard, which McKinley supported, or go to a bimetal system that added silver. Bryan was a “free silver” man, and his famous and fiery July 9, 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago impassioned his party.

Out in the Alaska territory, however, William A. Dickey was decidedly unimpressed. A Seattle businessman who had spent the summer exploring the Alaskan interior, he had been incommunicado for months and didn’t hear about the political conventions until later. In his telling, he named the fantastic mountain he encountered after the GOP nominee immediately after hearing of McKinley’s nomination.

The mountain was called McKinley for decades before Alaska became a state in 1959. In 1975, Alaska changed the mountain’s name to Denali for official state use. That’s what the Athabaskan people called it for centuries. This is popularly thought to mean “The Great One,” though modern linguists say a better translation is simply “The High One.”

In any event, 40 years ago, Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond asked the federal Board on Geographic Names to make the change nationwide. Then, as now, Ohioans balked at the slight to one of their favorite sons. The Board on Geographic Names, in turn, balked at getting in the middle of the Alaska-Ohio spat. The board, created in 1890, was reorganized in 1947 to bring order to place names, not really to solve thorny political questions.

A middle ground of sorts was reached in 1980, when Congress expanded the size of the park and changed its name to Denali National Park and Preserve while retaining “Mount McKinley.” But compromise isn’t in vogue these days. The reigning ethos in Washington is: If you have power, use it. That’s Obama’s governing philosophy (Donald Trump’s, too), so Obama’s Interior Department simply proclaimed that the 1947 statute gave them the authority to change the name.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, who happens to be from Ohio, doesn’t buy it. Neither does Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is seeking to replace Obama in the Oval Office. If he’s inaugurated president in 2017, perhaps Kasich can celebrate the park’s centennial by changing the name back.

That’s the more serious issue here: presidential unilateralism. This episode reminds Republicans that on issues ranging from implementing Obamacare to formulating immigration policy, this president routinely ignores the wishes of Congress and the law. Unless Democrats think their party will occupy the White House forever, this precedent ought to alarm them, too.

Obama’s Alaska machinations also reveal his unattractive habit of disparaging previous Republican administrations. In 2008, asked at his first news conference as president-elect whether he’d consulted with former presidents, Obama gratuitously mocked Ronald Reagan’s widow. He’d spoken with all the ex-presidents “that are living,” he said, adding, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any séances.”

This was untrue. Mrs. Reagan had consulted an astrologist after her husband was shot because she was worried about keeping him alive—not attempting to talk to the dead. But people who traffic in insults (Trump comes to mind again) aren’t usually concerned about accuracy.

Obama also claimed that when Rutherford B. Hayes encountered the telephone, he wondered who would ever want to use one. “That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore,” Obama said. “He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.”

That’s slander. Hayes never said anything of the kind about the telephone—an invention he installed in the White House—or any other new technology. What he actually said about the phone was “That is wonderful.”

Obama has also taken shots at George W. Bush over Hurricane Katrina, and misquoted Abraham Lincoln, a president he professes to admire. But what did poor William McKinley ever do to merit Obama administration scorn? The answer, revealed in a White House fact sheet, was: “He never set foot in Alaska.”

That’s a curious criterion for place names. Does Obama fancy that George Washington climbed Mount Washington—or that the Marquis de Lafayette ever laid eyes on nearby Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire’s White Mountains?

Such folly isn’t limited to Democrats. Alaska native Bristol Palin criticized the Mount McKinley name change on the grounds that Obama should instead be "worrying about the radical jihadists in ISIS.”

“I’ve never called the mountain Denali, and neither does anyone I know,” young Miss Palin wrote.

That’s my cue to say, “Bristol Palin, meet Sarah Palin.”

Alaska’s former governor actually mentioned the mountain in her 2009 gubernatorial farewell address. The governor, Bristol Palin’s mother, put it this way: “Denali, the ‘Great One,’ soaring under the midnight sun.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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