Strap yourself in. We are about to have a whopping big fight, this one over a building, one of the most stately and beautiful in the Capitol, the Russell Senate Office Building.
It’s a Beaux-Arts limestone and marble confection that serves as the backdrop for many a Washington thriller, is Instagrammed by thousands of Capitol tourists, and makes for frequent B-roll on the nightly news. It’s home to a third of the Senate and much of its leadership.
Oh, and by the way, it’s named after a racist. Not a dog-whistle racist. An avowed one.
It’s astonishing that no one thought in 1972 that it would be a hate crime to etch the name of Richard Russell, a die-hard segregationist who filibustered an anti-lynching bill, onto such an important building. But “good” Southerners persisted for a long time. Still, had the building been so christened right after the Civil War, today it would be the most prominent, expensive confederate monument ever built.
No one’s asking to tear it down, just to sand off the offensive name and chisel on a new one. There’s chance to do that with a proposal, advanced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, to rename it after six-term senator and war hero (because he was captured!) John McCain.
It should be a slam dunk, one of those votes by unanimous consent, but you never know in Trump’s Washington. Not because we don't recognize how hideous honoring Russell is, now that, however belatedly, we have near-universal recognition (Charlottesville marchers and their ilk aside) that slavery and its aftermath of persistent segregation were a scourge upon the country. And not because we don’t have almost universal consensus that McCain is a worthy replacement.
No, it’s because we have a hateful president who will do anything to continue to dishonor McCain even to his grave. He stooped to using the flag to do so—reluctantly lowering it to half staff, then raising it before the body had lain in state, only lowering it again when his staff convinced him he was failing to carry out one of the most basic duties of his office.
Trump was so driven he didn’t see the hypocrisy of his peevishness, that he was doing the very thing he accused kneeling NFL players of—dishonoring the flag to make a point. Theirs, of course, is in the tradition of peaceful protest: to shine a light on the killing of unarmed black men for no reason. His is dishonorable: to deprive a soldier of his just reward for serving, and suffering, for his country, something Trump escaped through five deferments for bone spurs.
As outside the norms of acceptable conduct as Trump was, it was hard to find anyone in the GOP who isn’t retiring from confronting him head on. It’s evidence of the spinelessness of the Senate that Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia stands as a profile in courage for stating the obvious: “Anybody who in any way tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping. I would say to the president or anybody in the world, it’s time to pause and say, ‘This was a great man who gave everything for us.’”
No more needs to be said in praise of McCain than that, and no more needs to be cited in condemnation of Russell than his record. Russell co-authored the Southern Manifesto, pushed the idea of relocating blacks to ease racial tensions, called the 1964 Civil Rights Act disastrous, opposed ending poll taxes, and insidiously worked against the integration of public schools after the Supreme Court unanimously ordered it.
It should have been replaced long ago, and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky said as much in 2015, suggesting renaming the edifice in honor of Sen. Bob Dole, an early, stalwart advocate for civil rights. This is not to say that either Dole is or McCain was perfect or not prickly or loved by all, but to say they are worthier than Russell ever was.
It’s a lingering question how Russell endured so long. There’s no blinder spot than the blind spot senators have for their esteemed colleagues. The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Bronitsky reminds us that Vice President Al Gore praised Russell to high heaven as a statue of the Georgia senator was unveiled in the Rotunda in, drum roll, 1996. Surely we knew better in a year when Bronitsky notes, as one example, Whoopi Goldberg hosted the Oscars.
Surely by now, we’re woke to the harm and sorrow of it all. Tomasky’s suggestion lives on in the immediate support Dole gave to honoring McCain by renaming the SOB, as it was called before the two newer ones were built, leaving the Russell building with the more felicitous “Old SOB” moniker.
Against Dole, we have Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, echoing other “good” Southerners. He didn’t bother to make an argument that Russell was worthy of having his name written in stone, just that “nobody’s perfect.”
If you think the flag was a travesty, an attack on tradition and civility, just wait until Trump folds his arms, juts out his chin, and resists honoring McCain. But the time is here. We have the man a half-century dead whose memory we no longer have an excuse for exalting and one we are about to bury who should live on as an example to every senator who enters the McCain Senate Office Building, and a reminder to every selfie-taker on a tour bus, of what the Senate once was.
It’s a certainty that Trump won’t give up his grudge without a fight but, as McCain would say, there are some things worth fighting for.