KEYSTONE, S.D. - Every four years the presidential candidates make several ritual stops. They address the American Legion. They join the cardinal of New York in an evening of high spirits and political jokes. They should add one more. They should come here, to Mount Rushmore.
They come here in their minds, of course, for no one contemplates a run for the nation's highest land without imagining his image carved here, in granite high in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But that is a conceit, a flight of imagination. They should actually come here during the fall campaign. They would find themselves humbled, sobered - and changed.
An odd thing about American political life is that for all the things that have changed - the new role that television played in the 1950s, for example, or the Internet in our own time - some lessons are written in stone. And these two baby-boom candidates, reared on situation comedies and situation ethics, might profit mightily from the enduring lessons of the men whose images are carved in such relief that they will wear away only an inch every 10,000 years.
The faces on Mount Rushmore are an American statement for the ages. They are in a faraway part of the country sculpted by what Wallace Stegner called the "men who had sniffed the wind westward. "Today those faces stand for the nation's radical sense of audacity and for its conservative sense of patriotism. They underline the importance that a country of nearly 300 million people places on the importance of an individual and on his or her ability to change the landscape. They speak too of the American achievement - to have carved some thoughts in eternity - and of the American willingness to alter the environment, not only for conquest but also for idealism.
In all this there are lessons for us all, and they are best contemplated in the rough and rustic setting of the Black Hills, a reminder as good as any of what this land was before we, all of us, whether by choice from Europe, in shackles from Africa, in flight of tyranny from Asia or Central America, imposed our will on the first American natives and on the land they cultivated, hunted, and worshipped. These lessons are well known, if not always well understood.
But there are special lessons for the two men who seek to lead this remarkable people of immigrants (for the Indians our forefathers encountered were migrants too) and they come in the images and the historical legacy of the four men carved from models made to a 1-to-12 scale: an appropriate measure for politicians of our own time.
Mount Rushmore is the largest completed work of art on Earth and so is the achievement of these four: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt. They are the men who, in sculptor Gutzon Borglum's view, symbolize the birth, expansion, preservation, and growth of the nation.
In our easy chairs and easy lives, we can debate who belongs in the pantheon and who doesn't. Some among us might substitute TR's distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saved the two pillars of our society, capitalism and democracy, from the tyrannies of the depression and the dictators of the last century, while others might imagine John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who put the American spirit into words. But for our purposes, these four will do. They teach our leaders what they need to know for our time.
Sen. John Kerry can stand in the hills of South Dakota and measure himself against George Washington, another man who married a wealthy widow, and to contemplate the confidence and sacrifice he made for greater ideals. No self-indulgence in Washington's closet, or in his character. He can look at Thomas Jefferson, whose doctrine it was that the nation ought to remain small, huddled along the Atlantic, and then who changed his mind as the world changed. No doctrinaire rigidity in Jefferson's life passage. He can look at Abraham Lincoln's tragic face and see how it, and the man within, was marked as much by compassion as by conviction. No bloodlessness in Lincoln. And he can look at Theodore Roosevelt's resolve and see that the man who cherished his Nobel Peace Prize could also be a warrior. No reluctance to project American force in Roosevelt.
There is plenty for George W. Bush to see and learn too. From Washington, who led a terrified nation in times of despair and privation, there is the reminder that the dedication to the enduring founding principles - and of these none is more important than individual liberty - must triumph over temporary adversity. From Jefferson, who lived a life of contemplation, there is the reminder that curiosity is a virtue all its own and that there is as much, and sometimes more, virtue in reflection as there is reflexive action. From Lincoln, who laced his speeches with Scripture, there is the reminder that religion can be a tool of comfort as much as conflict. And from Roosevelt, whose legacy is in the continued magnificence of this land, there is the reminder of the virtue of conservation and the skepticism of business that helped TR shape not only a continent but also a century.
One more lesson, a good one for us all in this period of terrorism and travail: You can stand here in the Black Hills that rise from the Dakota prairie, even today more lonely than romantic, peer into the mountains and the heavens, and realize that the farther you stand from these men the less the imperfections show. There is in the visage of TR no trace of his betrayal of his friend William Howard Taft, nor any sign in Lincoln's face to suggest he might have bent the Constitution to save the Union the Constitution formed, nor any hint that Jefferson, who spoke for liberty for all the world denied it to the slaves at his own home at Monticello. Here, where we put a human face on our ideals, it becomes clear that we need, along with a sense of human possibility, a sense of humanity ourselves.
There are lessons in the hills for our candidates and for ourselves in our own time. They are lessons that teach humility and high purpose. They are lessons of the highest reaches of our national life, and they are lessons for election time and all time.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org