LETTER: America’s values now seem like museum pieces

To the editor:

In the 21st century where information storage involves virtual clouds, the metal file cabinet is going the way of pencil sharpeners and buggy whips. Still, a demolished metal cabinet behind a glass partition at the Smithsonian’s American history museum presents a jarring image. In September 1971, agents working on behalf of President Richard Nixon opened it with a crowbar in search of information against a presidential enemy.

You can search the details of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the cabinet’s owner, and his famous patient, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who published shocking Pentagon information as the Vietnam war was underway. But the display invites us to consider how much secrecy we should allow government, while contemplating the consequences of not being vigilant of our leaders.

A recent trip to meander through the Smithsonian’s museums revealed just how much information overload awaits the casual visitor. Indulge me a brief scattershot recollection of the museums, and other interesting points in our nation’s capitol. A sign photographed inside a shipyard – circa 1943 – revealed 375,000 man-hours were required to build a ship. Beside grinning caricatures of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, workers were shamed that missing a day was unpatriotic; and, “Loafers Yesterday: 436”.

President Obama’s basketball occupies display space close to Warren Harding’s silk pajamas. Bernie Sanders’ socialism is nothing new on the campaign trail as a 63-year old pamphlet urged: “Vote Socialism in 1956”. Looping on an ancient TV console, a 1950s ad assured smokers that “More doctors smoke Camels!” (Including throat specialists).

Display space devoted to foam McDonald’s burger holders, and numerous plastic cup lids, were a curiosity. The 1965 Chevy I spied in a 1960 photo of a Jack-In-The-Box drive-thru just proved that you can slip one past the vaunted Smithsonian curators. In the Air and Space museum I was impressed just how tight the space was in John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” capsule, and in the two-man “Gemini IV.”

Woodrow and Edith Wilson lived out their post-presidential years in a roomy but cozy townhouse on ‘S’ street that features a baseball autographed by King George V. The Wilsons would each die on its third floor, 37 years apart. Some five miles away, Abraham Lincoln’s summer cottage reveals why Abe loved its cooler, secluded locale away from the White House.

A lengthy motorcade screaming down Pennsylvania avenue a few days ago may have carried the president. If so, I only wish he had stopped and joined us inside the National Archives for a glimpse at the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence. An original of the 1297 version of Magna Carta is on loan there.

He could have seen how they are fading, literally and, perhaps, metaphorically.

Douglas Smith