A Battle at Manassas BY MARY ANNE REILLY Washington, D.C. IN 1984, like thousands of others on the floor of the Democratic Convention, I stood awaiting Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro’s joint appearance at the podium. Suddenly, someone shoved a plastic American flag into my hand and instructed me to wave it in front of the network cameras. I didn’t want to wave the plastic flag. It didn’t feel real. That memory resurfaced recently as I was reminded that the Democratic party still hasn’t learned how to constructively use Americans’ pride in their heritage. The story of Houston Democratic Congressman Mike Andrews’s controversial legislative victory, the passage of the Manassas National Battlefield Park Amendments of 1988, provides a case in point. Ronald Reagan didn’t like the legislation. George Bush worried about it. And Michael Dukakis forgot about it. The Executive ‘Branch, including Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, sulked until November 11, the Friday following Dukakis’s defeat. On that day Reagan bit the bullet and saved the historic Virginia battlefield by signing a bill that Andrews and Arkansas Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers had affixed to a coveted Administration tax bill. In accordance with the new law, the federal government immediately acquired \(for a price that will be set somewhere between per John P. “Til” Hazel had earmarked for a 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall and several other projects. From that day forward, the site of General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters and the land believed to be the burial ground of hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers, including members of the Texas brigade, became part of the Civil War Battlefield Park. November 11 was Veteran’s Day. Even in the waning hours of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan managed to wrest a symbolic victory out of a legislative defeat. The use of symbols of the nation’s heritage, for better or for worse, is no small matter in American politics. And while no one can legitimately argue that James Baker’s Pledge of Allegiance and flag factory strategy single-handedly sank the Dukakis campaign, it undoubtedly did some damage. Had Michael Dukakis chosen to address nationwide preservationist/conservationist concerns, of Mary Anne Reilly is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. which Manassas is the most well-known example, something refreshing might have happened. He might have elevated the level of debate on issues relating to oft-cited but ill-defined American “patriotic values.” And he might have also succeeded in steeling himself against the attacks upon his “patriotic” and environmental records that dogged him from late August until Election Day. The Manassas story could hold some lessons for both political parties, as critical environmental issues clamor for attention in the years ahead. Here’s why: The political power of preservation/conservation issues wasn’t immediately clear to Manassas defenders when they began their battle. In early February, when Andrews, once a University of Texas history major, visited the site and decided to oppose a plan to build a mall there, he thought he was acting out of a personal, rather than a widely shared commitment to preservation of historical sites. To his satisfaction, he was wrong. “I can’t think of another issue as spontaneous,” Andrews said. That’s a common perception among the Manassas preservationists. Annie Snyder, the founder of the Save the Battlefield Coalition, who had been involved in a similar fight over a decade ago, admits the Manassas response surprised her, too. “When we were arguing about the Brawner Farm property [another site annexed to the Battlefield Park through the efforts of Virginia Republican Senator John Warner], it took three years to collect 9,000 signatures for our petitions. This year, in seven months, we had over 80.000.” It’s important not to overstate this comparison. After all, by the time Andrews and fellow Democratic Congressman, Robert Mrazek of New York, introduced the Manassas legislation in May, preservationist attorney Emanuel “Tersh” Boasberg, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, and former White House Press Secretary Jody Powell, now of Ogilvy and Mather Public Affairs, a Washington public relations mega-firm, were either lobbying in Congress or publicizing the issue. But the question remains, “Why Manassas?” Former Texas A&M President and military historian Frank Vandiver, who first asked Andrews to visit the battlefield and informed the Congressman of the mall controversy, suggested that the Manassas issue might have triggered a “latent patriotic concern.” Andrews describes the strong response to his legislation as a product of the “James Watt legacy and [Interior Department Secretary] Hodel’s attitude.” Indeed, funding for parkland acquisition has been cut by more than 90 percent from $805 million in 1978 to the $64 million allocated for this fiscal year. Whatever the motivation, an eclectic coalition \(now named the National Heritage issue concerns and political ideology helped pull off a legislative upset. The Wilderness Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. and the Reserve Officers Association, among others, all came together in a lobbying effort. And if that wasn’t enough to keep Donald Hodel on his toes, the Environmental Defense Fund was collaborating with its traditional adversary, the Army Corps of Engineers, to prevent the destruction of wetlands on the property if the legislative strategy didn’t work. In the House, the bill passed by a stunning and bipartisan margin of 307-98. It included an amendment offered by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, authorizing the “legislative taking” of the property a faster procedure than Andrews and Mrazek had proposed. The vote came on August 10, within weeks of the Republican Convention and the Democratic party’s nomination of Michael Dukakis. Battlefield proponents immediately began courting Dukakis and Bush campaigns with written requests for support. The Bush campaign, through the efforts of Phyllis Wyeth, a preservationist and the wife of painter Jamie Wyeth, eventually met with members of the Save the Battlefield Coalition. But rather than risk alienating developers around the nation, Bush staffers begged off, saying the Vice President would refrain, thank you, from taking positions on legislation currently before Congress. The Dukakis campaign’s handling of the matter is far more telling. On July 1, a letter was sent to the director of Dukakis’s Issues Staff, who replied in a letter dated July 13 that the July 1 communication had been forwarded to a research assistant. On September 1, with Senate hearings on Andrews’s legislation a week away, battlefield proponents sent a follow-up letter that outlined the political opportunities and risks that a visit to the Manassas site might yield. The candidate, it read, “needs to act like a fighter. The controversy swirling around the planned huge shopping mall on hallowed ground next to the Manassas National Battlefield Park is a perfect opportunity. An appearance at the Park with local activists 4 JANUARY 27. 1989
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.