Politicians are criticized for many things, but when it comes to public ceremony and symbolism, the trappings of electoral office, they usually know what they’re doing. That’s what they do best. Few would argue that they don’t know how to dedicate new projects: laying cornerstones, cutting ribbons, and naming new bridges and tunnels.
Until now, that is. Times have changed. We live in an era in which virtually every public symbol or monument is subject to scrutiny, lest it give offense to someone. Not only Confederate flags and statues of Robert E. Lee have come under attack. Even once-sacrosanct installations as the statue of Christopher Columbus in New York’s Columbus Circle aren’t safe from the new iconoclasm.
So it should not have surprised anyone that the decision of the New York State legislature to rename the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo has generated opposition.
What is somewhat surprising is that the Governor’s son Andrew — the current Governor Cuomo — said this week that he was “personally hurt” by a peitition to restore the bridge’s original name. He could have seen it coming.
Cuomo reportedly is blaming the petition on Reclaim New York, a conservative group. He doesn’t believe their stated reason, which is to preserve the historic name, for the Tappan Indian tribe and the Dutch word “zee,” meaning “sea.” Reclaim argues that while the late governor “may be deserving of something named after him, it should not be at the expense of history.
Whether the petition is actually partisanship in the guise of multiculturalism or not, the 80,000 signatories cannot be dismissed as a tiny cult of Cuomo-haters who represent only themselves. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 44 percent of New Yorkers support the renaming while 42 percent were against it.
On the other hand, the action of the lawmakers in Albany and the reaction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo are not hard to understand and sympathize with.
It was a largely bipartisan measure, in which a Republican-controlled legislature voted overwhelmingly to name a major new bridge after a former Democratic governor of notably liberal leanings. They congratulated themselves on bipartisanship, and expected others to do the same.
And then, there was the family angle: the incumbent son of the governor, who himself pushed for the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee, names it for his father. How often does the biblical injunction of Honor Thy Father so happily merge with gubernatorial grandiosity?
Besides, this is how it’s done in American politics. Getting to name things is a part of the spoils system. The winners of elections win the right to appoint their people to government posts, and to name bridges after their heroes. If the hero happens to be the incumbent’s father, so much the better.
Whatever their noble intentions, what, now, should be done? Or can be done?
At this point, restoring the original name Tappan Zee — unrenaming it, if you will — as the petitioners demand, would be going too far. The state legislature acted within its authority in making a perfectly appropriate gesture to honor a three-time governor who served the people well.
While his liberal positions on moral matters were deeply troubling, Mario Cuomo is remembered as a friend of the Orthodox community who had the “historic distinction” of being the highest elected official to personally appear before the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America.
“His deep respect for the senior rabbis, and his willingness to engage them in dialogue on major issues of public policy, set him apart from his contemporaries in the political world,” Agudah said in a statement on his passing.
More generally, he ushered in an era of fiscal soundness, instituted ethical reforms, advanced programs for education and health care and endorsed the “Rebuild NY” Transportation Bond Act to renew infrastructure throughout the state.
However, the petitioners did make another point that is worth considering: that in the future, public opinion should be taken into consideration before deciding on a name. Whether through hearings or a referendum, the people who will have to live with the name deserve to have a say in it.
That, of course, will not guarantee wholehearted public acceptance. As one signer of the Tappan Zee petition, Hollis Glaser of Tarrytown, wrote: “I’m sick of landmarks being named for politicians. We’re losing the history and the sense of place.”
What’s the alternative? Giving bridges numbers, like we have for the U.S. interstate highway system? Or we could name public projects for fauna and flora of the past: like Passenger Pigeon Bridge, or American Bison Bridge. Or, in honor of political correctness: The Bridge of Multiculturalism or the Bridge of Peace and Harmony. Or the Bridge of the Unknown Politician.
In truth, the tradition of naming landmarks after politicians and other famous figures has much to say for it. Besides honoring their memory, it usually helps keep history alive for commuters.