When Thomas Hart Benton's murals depicting Missouri state history for the Capitol building in Jefferson City were unveiled in 1937, deep in the dark days of the Great Depression, a clamor arose over the artist's inclusion of corrupt Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Within a few years, Pendergast would be locked away in Leavenworth -- something about failure to pay taxes on bribes received -- but Benton was adamant in defending his mural's depiction.
Facts were facts, truth was beauty. Everything in the mural had happened in Missouri history, Benton insisted, and if he had been hired to paint a mural for Illinois he would have included Al Capone.
Pretty much the same defense is now coming from Missouri Republican Steve Tilley, speaker of the House, who recently chose conservative radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh to be immortalized in a bronze sculpture inside the state Capitol. Limbaugh is currently bleeding advertisers in the wake of a three-day diatribe demeaning a law student as a "slut" and a "prostitute" for her position on women's healthcare. The broadcaster lives in Palm Beach, Fla., but was born in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“It’s not the 'Hall of Universally Loved Missourians,’” Tilley told the Kansas City Star in defense of his decision, now the subject of a petition drive to halt the move. “It’s the Hall of Famous Missourians.”
Famous has apparently become a synonym for infamous in the Show-Me State. Celebrity culture drives the discourse.
These days bronze is largely reserved for decorative stair railings, baby shoes and artistic irony. Local Missouri sculptor E. Spencer Schubert has been hired to render Limbaugh's official likeness, a quaint task whose role as a prime artistic function pretty much petered out with the rise of mass media a century ago. It's his third state house commission. Schubert also sculpted busts of John "Buck" O'Neil, the first African American coach in major league baseball, and Dred Scott, the African American slave whose unsuccessful lawsuit for his freedom in 1857 was upheld in the notorious Supreme Court decision that helped spark the Civil War.
Dred Scott is famous. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the court's vile majority opinion, is infamous. In 1865, as the Civil War's mountain of bodies was being counted, Congress rejected a proposal to commission a bust of the recently deceased jurist, as they had for the four U.S. chief justices who preceded him. In a 1992 dissent to a court decision, Justice Antonin Scalia waxed poetic about Emanuel Leutze's brooding portrait-painting of Taney, long displayed at Harvard Law School.
What was the case that inspired Scalia's fond aesthetic reminiscence? Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, upholding a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. That decision began the 20-year drive among some conservatives to defund Planned Parenthood -- a storm that reached gale force last month when the Susan G. Komen Foundation was persuaded, temporarily, to pull the plug on its long-standing financial support for the women's health agency.
Funny how these things go around. The Komen fiasco was a backdrop for the widely mocked recent congressional hearing on women's healthcare convened by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), which included no testimony from women. [Update: In a second afternoon panel, two women appeared as witnesses.] Sandra Fluke, the law student whose integrity was brutally savaged on the air by Limbaugh, was denied an opportunity to speak, but Democrats invited her testimony at a subsequent hearing.
A preposterous Limbaugh sculpture for Missouri's statehouse is rather like Michigan deciding to officially honor Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic 1930s radio broadcaster who also thrived on scapegoating commentary that exploited the fears and resentments of an economically fraught era. The difference: In 2012 Americans universally deplore anti-Semitism, while misogyny stands poised for official consecration in bronze.