What could be more entertaining, on a hot summer day, than revisiting the American idiocracy, which is obsessed at the moment with the president’s renaming of a mountain?
I don’t know where this episode ranks on the list of scandals - maybe somewhere between “terrorist fist bump” and the tan suit - but nevertheless it’s clear that, after all this time, Obama-haters still have enough teeth to chew a carpet. Which is what’s been happening ever since Obama’s announcement that Mount McKinley in Alaska shall henceforth be known by its traditional name, Denali.
Alaska Natives have called the mountain Denali since their arrival in the region several thousand years ago - in the local Athabaskan language, Denali means “the great one” - and nothing changed until a white prospector showed up in 1896 and decided on his own to re-christen it in honor of William McKinley, an Ohio governor who had just won the Republican presidential nomination. McKinley had never visited the region, but Congress didn’t care and approved the name change in 1917.
Problem was, Alaskans didn’t like it. In 1975, the state defied the federal decree and officially reinstated the name Denali - solely for its own use. Since then, Alaska’s representatives in Washington have tried to remove “McKinley” from the federal register of place names. But those moves have been repeatedly nixed by McKinley’s latter-day protectors, the Ohio Republicans.
Enter Obama, who said in a statement announcing the name chance, “Denali is a site of significant cultural importance to many Alaska Natives. The name ‘Denali’ has been used for many years and is widely used across the state today.”
Cue the ritual outrage.
Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro on Twitter: “Perhaps we should just be grateful Obama didn’t decide to rename Mt. McKinley Mt. Trayvon.”
Headline on the right-wing Gateway Pundit blog: “Obama Renames Mt. McKinley (Named After Some White Guy) to Denali.” A Gateway Pundit fan on Twitter: “Obama observes Islam practice of eliminating Western names.”
The right-wing blog Hot Air: “Obama apparently wanted a cheap win....It’s a curious political choice to pander to Alaskans....It’s an arbitrary and capricious use of executive power in pursuit of a petty end.”
But Ohio’s Republicans are truly leading the league in head detonations. Congressman Bob Gibbs says Obama’s decision is a “political stunt” and “constitutional overreach.” Senator Rob Portman says Obama’s decision “is yet another example of the president going around Congress.” Gov. John Kasich, the presidential candidate, tweets: “POTUS again oversteps his bounds.”
The ironies in this faux-flap scream for attention.
Don’t Republicans pride themselves on being the party of state’s rights and local control? For generations, Alaskans had insisted that the mountain be formally known again by a name that was indigenously Alaskan - only to be thwarted by Republicans back in Washington. Then here comes Obama, standing up for state’s rights and local control....and he gets hammered by the haters for kingly overreach.
The thing is, Alaska’s Republicans wanted to reinstate Denali. They know it means “the great one,” and they were fine with that native honorific. In the aftermath of Obama’s announcement, Senator Dan Sullivan said: “For decades, Alaskans and members of our congressional delegation have been fighting for Denali to be recognized by the federal government by its true name. I’m gratified that the president respected this.” His GOP colleague, Lisa Murkowski, added: “I’d like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change.”
With nearly 17 months still left on Obama’s clock, the haters will move on and find something else to seethe about. Maybe Obama will salute with a coffee cup or something. Maybe he’ll go skeet-shooting or something.
And by the way, we can all take comfort in knowing that if Donald Trump wins the White House, he’d keep the name Denali. Once he hears its English translation, he’ll just assume it refers to him.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org