Political Museum Creep

Never mind urban sprawl. What about political memorabilia sprawl?

The subject arises because of a quiet but prickly battle over artifacts that have migrated from the Capitol and House office buildings to assorted libraries and museums devoted to former speakers of the House.

There's a muddle over whether government property - including a Greek urn appraised at $2 million, assorted chandeliers, desks, a speaker's marble podium - belongs to the Congress (read taxpayers) or to the men who once wielded the speaker's gavel. A 1992 law ended the practice of lending items for ex-speakers to use in their home offices.

Possession decided decades back is cloudy. The late Sam Rayburn, widely-respected, was given or lent the above-mentioned urn, a historic chandelier, and the podium for his library in Texas. Living, retired speakers Tom Foley and Jim Wright are trying to negotiate retention of all or parts of the furnishings that exited with them to their offices at local universities. Tip O'Neill's heritage, including a grandfather clock and two crystal chandeliers housed at Boston College, was shipped back to the Capitol. John McCormack's memorabilia, at Boston University, were not.

There's some merit to the idea that memorabilia and replica offices help students in college government programs visualize legislative history.

But please, not every speaker is a historic giant. And, as things stand, by the time the next millennium rolls round in the year 3001, the US will have created 201 presidential libraries, give or take a handful depending on how many chiefs serve more than one term. Add a similar number of presidential birth places, some vice-presidential shrines, and cabinet-level college departments - and we'll have a landscape littered with more memorabilia than even political junkies can swallow.

History books, the internet, and university library microfiche will do just fine, thank you.

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