The following column first ran on Aug. 10, 2016:
The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from the people of France.
I knew this already, of course, having learned it as a child in school. Of course, I also learned that Europeans brought civilization to the New World and that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, so bleep you, River Forest schools. But that’s another column.
I learned in school that the French had given us this green thing, which was nice of them, I guess. I don’t recall giving it much thought at the time — Louisiana Purchase and Statue of Liberty from the French, OK.
Memorized, not contemplated, y’know?
I went to see it a month ago on a trip to New York, and the perspective of an adult is rather different: The Statue of Liberty is a cold act of vengeance. I don’t know if it was for the Quasi-War or boning them on the Louisiana Purchase or what, but no kindness lies behind a “gift” like that. Imagine the conversation in the White House:
“Mr. President, I bring difficult news from France.”
“Difficult news? Is it a problem of trade routes? Another European war?”
“No, sir. The French wish to present us with … a gift.”
“Well, that seems gracious of them. A set of dishes? A cannon or two?”
“No, sir. They are sending us a statue.”
“A statue? A statue of what?”
“It’s a Roman goddess. Holding a torch. They say the U.S. is a beacon of hope to all mankind, or something like that, and they want to honor us by giving us a statue to symbolize freedom.”
“What is it, marble? One of those Greek yard decorations?”
“No, very modern. Copper.”
“Copper? So we’ll have to polish it or it’ll turn green? Oh, great. Another thing to keep clean.”
“Is she naked? Those statues are all naked. I don’t want a naked statue waving a torch sitting around on my end table when the grandchildren are visiting.”
“No, sir. Not naked. I saw the drawing. She’s wearing a ship’s sail or something, and a pointy crown.”
“Well, that’s fine. French fashion is odd, but if she’s covered up we can be polite about it. Put it out when the French ambassador comes by, that sort of thing.”
“You see a problem with this? We can just pull it out of storage when there’s a state visit, right? Like we do with that awful maple sugar candy the Canadian Prime Minister sends me every year?”
“Well … sir … uh … no, we can’t do that.”
“The statue is … somewhat large.”
“I’m sure we can find space. I’m the president, after all. What is it, 10, 12 feet tall? We’ll plant a hedge in front of it.”
“No, sir. The statue is, um, a hundred and fifty feet tall.”
“A HUNDRED AND FIFTY FEET?!?!”
“Where the hell are we going to put that? A 150-foot-tall copper woman doesn’t represent liberty! She represents obligation and inconvenience and maintenance costs out the wazoo for 200 years! We’re going to have to buy a freaking island for something that big. And we’ll have to spend a bucket of money building it a freaking pedestal or something to stand on. A hundred and fifty feet tall! I can’t just put a 150-foot-tall statue on my desk. We can’t just pull that out when France comes by to visit. They can probably see it from France! We have to polish this thing and display it forever? That’s insane. What kind of ‘gift’ is that? What did we ever do to France?
“They could just as well give us their tired, their poor, their wretched refuse yearning to breathe free!”