The Battle of the World War II Memorial and the Final Victory Over Obama

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 14 2013 9:55 AM

The Battle of the World War II Memorial and the Final Victory Over Obama

Any future student of epistemic closure—of groupthink sealed off from the wider world by partisan media and consensus—will inevitably end up studying the great World War II Memorial conflict of 2013. On Oct. 1, day one of the shutdown, Republican congressmen discovered that the Honor Flight of World War II veterans who'd come to D.C. was met with a closed memorial. They helped the veterans move the barricades and shame the park rangers who'd shown up to haphazardly enforce them. Mississippi Rep. Steven Palazzo, who had warned the White House of the coming conflict, talked to conservative media about how the closure was surely "politically motivated."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

From there on out, there were two shutdown "narratives." In the mainstream media and on the left, the shutdown had been driven by conservative Republicans who refused to fund Obamacare in the CR, as they had been promising for months. On the right, the shutdown was Obama's fault—why wouldn't he compromise?—and the most visible pain of the shutdown, the closure of parks and memorials, was engineered spitefully by the president. There are terms in conservative media and on Twitter—"Spite House," "barrycades"—that I don't think have made the jump beyond. Conservative media report that the memorials were not barricaded in 1995. As Garance Franke-Ruta has proved, by doing something called "journalism," many of the memorials were closed then. The World War II Memorial did not exist in 1995. Security on the Mall, and around all federal buildings, was bumped up after 9/11. And even when you factor all that in, the "barricades" have been enforced with all the oomph of a "no free refills" sign at a busy Del Taco franchise. No one has been arrested in D.C. for going past them.

But the conservative press is full of inspiring tales of Real Americans and Veterans—the natural enemies of liberalism!—"storming past" the barricades. It started this weekend with the "storming" of the Lincoln Memorial, which I started hearing about on Twitter and conservative fundraising emails. At the end of this clip, you'll notice a George Washington impersonator holding a flag that portrays a green tree and the slogan "Appeal to Heaven." That's James Manship, a Virginia conservative activist and mainstay at local Tea Parties.

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The efforts picked up all weekend. On Saturday, FreedomWorks and Glenn Beck gathered more than a hundred activists on the mall to do custodial work—#FixUpDC. I was there and have a story coming out shortly, but the media presence was pretty wan. No major networks heard Beck explain that "it is an honor" to clean up the national parks.

What did the media cover? The "Million Vets March" on Sunday morning, which brought Sarah Palin (fresh from a campaign event for Steve Lonegan in New Jersey) to the mall to join Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in calling for the "barrycades" to come down. (There were fewer than 1 million veterans on hand.)

Conservative bloggers and tweeters treated this like a uniquely inspiring protest of government folly. "The press will try to keep today’s events secret, but I doubt whether they can succeed," wrote Power Line's John Hinderaker. "Time will tell, but this seems like the sort of revelatory moment that will reverberate and gain force with time." But did the MSM cover it that way? No. Many reports focused on the fringe nature of some of the speakers who'd glommed on to the rally. Photographers snapped great shots of Cruz and Lee flanked by flags for "Oath Keepers," the group that asked soldiers, police officers, et al. to "keep their oaths" to the people and resist tyranny if it comes to that. Larry Klayman, a legal gadfly from the Clinton era who's still in D.C. for some reason, used his time at the mic to call the president a Muslim.

For liberals, the defining image of the Vets' march was of a man holding a Marine flag with his right hand and the Confederate flag with the left.

Conservatives were outraged. Did the MSM apply the same "nut-picking" ethos to its coverage of Occupy protests? Well, sometimes yes, often no. Occupy, that famously incoherent protest movement, was easier for the media to grok than protests at the memorials and monuments. Are these protesters "opposed to the shutdown"? Not quite, because they agree with the goals of Republicans who don't want to fund Obamacare, and they're not protesting anything else affected by the shutdown. They're opposed to Obama, opposed to the official "narrative" of the shutdown, and so irate that they forgot, on Sunday, to mention that House Republicans had tried to reopen just the monuments by passing a piecemeal continuing resolution to fund park services. It's a huge mess. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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