Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton at center of World War I Memorial tussle

Correction: An earlier version of this column mistakenly indicated that Eminem provided the voiceover for the World War I Memorial Foundation’s informational video. This version has been corrected.

John Kelly
Columnist March 28, 2012

Just when it seemed as if the battle over a memorial in Washington to the veterans of World War I couldn’t get any more confusing, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is co-sponsoring a bill that would help fund a foundation whose aims she says she opposes.

The bill is H.R. 4107, introduced Feb. 29 by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). It would require the Treasury Department to mint silver coins in commemoration of the centennial of World War I. A $10 surcharge on each coin would go to the World War I Memorial Foundation. That’s the group that has been pushing H.R. 938, the “Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act,” which would re-dedicate the District’s modest memorial on the Mall as the D.C. and National World War I Memorial.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

This has, to say the least, confused some people, including David DeJonge, one of the founders of the World War I Memorial Foundation. David, who lives near Grand Rapids, Mich., became interested in the issue after meeting and photographing veterans and learning there was no national monument to the Great War in Washington.

“I’m just a photographer from the Midwest,” David said. “I don’t understand all the politics and how that all works.”

Well, this one worked this way: Norton said she received a “dear colleague” letter soliciting co-sponsors for the coin bill. “As is often the case, the bill itself had apparently not been drafted, and was not enclosed, at the time the Dear Colleague was circulated,” Norton’s office said in a statement. She signed on, not knowing it would benefit that particular foundation.


World War I Memorial (Courtesy of Arthur Cotton Moore)

If this sounds familiar it might be because Norton was an honorary trustee of the foundation before the memorial got wrapped up in the D.C. voting rights issue and became just another reminder of the indignities the District suffers at the hands of Congress.

“I’m upset that she’s on the bill,” said Nelson Rimensnyder, a District historian who testified against H.R. 938 in January. “The radar should have been up on that.”

For the record, Norton’s statement said she “does not support a commemorative coin whose proceeds would go to the World War I Foundation if such funds were used for nationalizing or otherwise altering the D.C. War Memorial.” She said it doesn’t matter much anyway, because the National Park Service has testified that nothing more can be built on the Mall.

That hasn’t cooled the ardor of the memorial foundation, which two weeks ago posted a video on its Web site recounting its efforts and spelling out its supporters’ hopes. The 12-minute video features stirring music, images of Frank Buckles — who, until he died in 2011, was the country’s last surviving World War I vet — and the sonorous voice of a guy who’s done TV commercials for Chrysler.

“This was not about taking away what Washington, D.C., built,” the narrator intones, “but more about uniting and joining the rest of the nation with the brave soldiers from the District of Columbia and doing so in a simple and honorable way.”

David said he has compassion for the District’s taxed-but-unrepresented residents but stressed that adding some “simple elements” near the existing memorial — some statues or bronzes, say — would in “no way, shape or form touch or alter the local memorial.”

David has been working for a WWI memorial for four years. He thought of his efforts recently when he took his son to see “Red Tails,” the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. “I think it was in that movie where someone said, ‘Politics is the art of delaying something until it goes away.’ Thousands of people in the United States are watching this to see if politicians are using this tactic.”

All these various bills and resolutions are in committee, including one sponsored by Norton, H.Res. 346, which would keep the District’s memorial solely for the city, while instructing Congress to search for a suitable place for a national memorial.

In a perfect world, the District would happily offer its memorial to the country. But in a perfect world, the District would also have full representation in Congress and wouldn’t have to cling to what little shreds of its own identity it has. And in a perfect world, members of Congress would ask questions about the bills they’re invited to co-sponsor.

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