Memorializing heroes and politicians, not always in that order

IF there's a school, park, bridge, skating rink, or intersection in Massachusetts without a name, just wait. A politician will soon fill that void. Every year dozens of bills naming this or that piece of public property in honor of somebody glide through the legislature. Playing the name game, as it might be called, is a favorite legislative pastime, no doubt, because no heavy lifting is involved and there's little or no cost.

It's a means of granting recognition to hometown or state military heroes and others with substantial public service. But all too often, many of the deserving are overlooked in favor of those with political connections.

One who is deserving and also has political ties is retiring US House Speaker Thomas P. O`Neill Jr. And he certainly is not being forgotten. Not one, but two monuments may soon honor this Cambridge Democrat and 34-year veteran of Congress.

Capitol Hill legislators are expected to push a bill naming a $75 million federal office building near Boston's North Station for him.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a measure by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to name a block-long state transportation building in Boston's Park Square for Mr. O'Neill, who was once Massachusetts' House speaker. Prospects appear bright. Both state chambers are overwhelmingly Democratic, and O'Neill is a Democrat with strong Beacon Hill ties.

Similarly, it's hard to imagine that the retiring Speaker's colleagues in the Democratic-controlled US Congress would not take the opportunity to name the new Boston federal building for him, a plan that's long been rumored.

Some Republicans would like to name a federal building for John A. Volpe, a former three-term GOP governor of Massachusetts who was later US secretary of transportation and ambassador to Italy. If the federal structure is to honor O'Neill, why not make the state transportation building a Volpe memorial?

From a purely partisan standpoint, Democratic lawmakers are hardly eager to perpetuate the names of political opponents. In fairness to O'Neill, he has served in government for a half century, much of time in leadership positions. That certainly is worthy of recognition.

He would not be the first politician to have two buildings bear his name, and in the same city. Such an honor was conferred on the late John W. McCormack, also a speaker of both the Massachusetts and US House. The 22-story state office building behind the State House, was named for him. And not to be outdone, federal officials renamed the US court and post office building, a few blocks away, to memorialize the former speaker.

As well intentioned as two McCormack Buildings may be, it has been confusing and a boon to taxi drivers.

Two O'Neill buildings could also pose problems for the very citizens that the government agencies in the structures are supposed to serve. The distance from the transportation building to the new federal building is greater than that between the two McCormack buildings.

Anything that can be done to avoid duplicate names for government buildings, especially in the same city, should be encouraged. As flattered as he must be, O'Neill could let it be known that one such honor is enough.

While friends are bent on providing suitable structural tributes to the Speaker, there are several others who, over the years, have contributed considerably to Massachusetts and the nation who go unmemorialized.

One is the late Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. His long government career, which began in the state legislature, included nearly a decade and a half in the US Senate. He also served as US ambassador to the United Nations and held several other diplomatic assignments.

What more appropriate monument to the Lodge legacy could there be than to give his name to the nearly year-old state archives building, near the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston's Dorchester section. But don't expect that to happen. If that structure is named, it will undoubtedly honor some Democratic politician and quite possibly one whose contribution is substantially less than that of Ambassador Lodge.

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