While Bostonians mount a frenzied effort to prevent the original Stuart portraits of George and Martha Washington from being sold south, I hope they save some strength for a second strike: "Old Ironsides," the USS Constitution, ought to be transferred from Boston harbor to Washington Navy Yard.
tThe Constitution, probably the most renowned frigate in the annals of warfare, rightfully belongs in Washington as flagship of the U.S. Navy. Despite past links with Boston, the ship-like the Stuart portraits-is a national relic, not (like Faneuil Hall or Bunker Hill, for example) a sectional one, and ought to be located in the national capital, which of course is also the headquarters of the Navy.
The Constitution was launched in 1797 and won glory for an unbroken chain of victories in our naval war with France, on the Barbary Coast, and in the War of 1812. In 1828, when an unsentimental Congress tried to scrap the frigate, public indignation, rallied by Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous poem, "Old Ironsides," forced the government to preserve the ship. The Constitution has since 1934, no great time, been home-ported at Boston.
But Boston no longer even has a navy yard to provide economical support, let alone an appropriate seting. "Old Ironsides" is now ignominiously moored at a National Park Service pier, hard by the hot dog concessions and the trampled grass of what passes for a little memorial park. Smokey Bear, not U.S. Marines, guards the portals to its dock.
By contrast, Washington boasts a handsomely restored historic old navy yard with a fine waterfront, whose nearly fresh water would be better for the frigate's live-oak hull than Boston salt water anyway.
In contrast to Boston, whose Chamber of Commerce claims a yearly tourist migration of 1.5 million, Washington annually logs about 20 million pilgrims, 13 times as many citizens who could see and venerate Old Ironsides.
How much more sensible and economical it would be to have the ship in Washington. Within sight of the Capitol, in one of the most historic quarters of the city, the navy yard already boats the two admirable Navy and Marine Corps Museums. The office and library of the director of navy history, a senior admiral-like the frigate, retired but still active-are but a block of so from where the ship would be berthed.
One main objection raised by Bostonians is that an old law (P.L. 85-23, shaped by the former speaker of the House, Massachusetts Rep. John W. McCormack) requires that the frigate be home-ported at Boston. But that is no obstacle at all. As any sailor would reply, warships often fail to see their home-ports for years on end.
And, of course, one would expect the present Speaker, Thomas P. O'Neill, another Massachusetts man, to rise above the parochialism of old McCormack and put the national interest in the Constitution ahead of that of Boston, his home district.
To do the job right, the Navy should take a lesson from the way the British have preserved and employed HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar. Permanently in commission, Victory is a tourist shrine and a glorious monument to Britain's naval past. Most than that, however, Victory also serves as fleet flagship for cermonial purposes and files (or "wears," as the British say) an admiral's flag.
With "Old Ironsides" in Washington, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas B. Hayward should designate the frigate as perpetual flagship of the Navy. Its hallowed quarterdeck should be reserved for the Navy's most important occasions-changes of top command, swearing-in of secretaries of the Navy, awards of medals of honor and official receptions for dignitaries.
The British analogy is particularly apt. Our Navy, like theirs, once ruled the waves, but is now in a state of decline compared with its past strength and that of our principal rival. Such a decline renders past glories all the more precious because they are likely to be the only naval glories (in the century of the Pueblo) we will still have. CAPTION: Picture, no caption