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Kitsch on Capitol Hill

An unlikely symbol in the House.

12:00 AM, Apr 5, 2007 • By ERNEST W. LEFEVER
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MY FIRST VISIT to Washington, D.C. was as a child in the early 1930s. Holding my father's hand, I vividly recall seeing the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and the statue-cluttered Capitol Rotunda. Not yet built were the graceful Jefferson Memorial and the majestic Supreme Court building. FDR was in his first term, the Great Depression raged, and World War II loomed. The sprawling postmodern FDR memorial dedicated in 1997 was not even a gleam in the eye of Congress.

Today, visitors to Washington are treated to many new monuments, notably the strikingly austere Vietnam Veterans Wall and the more traditional World War II Memorial. The city hosts a hundred-plus memorials, equestrian statues, Greek and Roman inspired political temples, and an assortment of other tributes to notable and not-so-notable Americans and foreigners. This hodgepodge is enough to give the unsuspecting visitor an edifice complex.

In his recent book, God and America: A Perspective on the Public Square, Newt Gingrich focuses on the religious significance of the words and images carved on our greatest monuments, notably those dedicated to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.

He notes that the Supreme Court building, completed in 1935, affirms America's Judeo-Christian roots. Sculptures on the frieze picture Moses, Solon, and Confucius who represent "three great civilizations to the East." The Library of Congress displays both the Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz. Its main reading room has a bronze statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments and a painting of a young Jewish woman praying.

In striking contrast to these religious and philosophical reminders of our roots, the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Capitol Hill displays a grotesquely prominent double-image that has perplexed many Americans and foreigners--really, anyone who watches the president deliver his annual State of the Union Address.

Appropriately, the central symbol behind the Speaker's rostrum is a large 8'-by-5' vertically hung American flag, donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Alas, the flag is flanked by two large, unfamiliar, and bulky three-dimensional bronze fasces that constitute a unbecoming example of political kitsch--junk art--totally inappropriate for a great democratic republic.

The fasces came to the House Chamber by a circuitous route (dating back to the Roman Republic) that began four centuries before the Christian era. In those days, the governing counsel maintained decorum by physical force if necessary, using the fasces, a handheld weapon wielded by guards to subdue or expel unruly members.

The Roman fasces was an ax, its handle surrounded by a bundle of elm or birch rods tied together with a red strap. The rods could be quickly removed by guards to quell disturbances. Given the less than savory origin of the fasces, it is ironic that our founders, some of whom were influenced by Roman law or by idealized images of the Roman Republic, adopted the fasces as a symbol of the 13 original colonies. In theory the fasces was a weapon to punish any state delegate (or delegation) that threatened the new union. Largely unexamined, this unlikely symbol quietly persisted in the decor of the Capitol where it can still be seen in various places, usually intertwined with a wreath.

As early as 1789, the House Chamber was decorated with two small fasces on either side of the speaker's rostrum. During the 1949-1951 restoration of the Capitol, the enlarged House Chamber with 448 permanent seats was decorated with two much larger fasces. Measuring six feet high and three feet wide, the dark bronze objects were anchored to the wall on both sides of the American flag.

Incidentally, the fasces was resurrected in 1922 when Mussolini made it the rallying symbol of his Fascist party. Indeed, he concocted the word fascism from the fasces. Later, Hitler briefly toyed with adopting the fasces as the Nazi symbol before he selected the swastika. If this doesn't thoroughly discredit the fasces what would?

Symbolism remains an essential element in art, religion, politics, and national identity. A people cannot thrive without emblems that reinforce their historical memory and quicken their patriotism. Valid symbols undergird a common resolve. The centrality of the American flag was dramatically affirmed after 9/11, when millions of flags suddenly appeared as though commanded by a hidden hand. But not one single American displayed a fasces. The two disturbing fasces behind the speaker's rostrum are nothing more than outdated and discredited political kitsch. The Stars and Stripes alone is sufficient to symbolize America.

Ernest W. Lefever, a senior fellow at the Ethics and public policy Center in Washington, is author of, America's Imperial Burden.