WASHINGTON — The National Park Service has been out buying video footage of conservative rallies as it struggles to respond to a new civil war over a historical film shown at the Lincoln Memorial.
Conservatives fired the first verbal “shots” in this conflict by complaining in 2003 that the video, produced in 1994 with the help of high school students from around the nation, implies that Abraham Lincoln supported abortion, homosexuality and liberal causes.
The marble memorial to Lincoln, the first Republican president, draws more than 4 million visitors a year. Many stop at a first-floor exhibit to see an eight-minute video that showcases Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, presidential visits and glimpses of dozens of protest marches at the memorial on the National Mall.
Park Service documents, released recently under the Freedom of Information Act to two liberal advocacy groups, show the agency moved quickly to assuage conservatives’ ire.
The service bought footage of President Bush, pro-gun demonstrations and pro-Iraq war rallies and even considered cutting out a section showing former President Clinton, a Democrat.
Park Service officials said they wanted the video to be politically balanced but refused to provide a copy of the revision to The Associated Press, saying it was still being evaluated.
Students who worked on and collected money for the project were surprised by the effort to give their display a more conservative touch.
“The Lincoln Memorial is America’s soapbox,” said Ilene M. Morgan of Los Angeles, who as a Scottsdale, Ariz., high school student helped organize the project. “This was where people have stood to get America’s attention. That’s what we were trying to capture.”
Conservatives demand changes
The service has spent about $20,000 revamping the video and buying footage — including some from The Associated Press — after conservative political groups organized a campaign of petitions and e-mails demanding changes.
“The video gave the impression that Lincoln would have supported abortion and homosexuality,” said the Web site of Rev. Louis Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition. It cited footage showing rallies at the memorial by abortion and gay rights supporters and war opponents but no similar footage from Christian and conservative interests.
“Absent from the video were any Promise Keepers marches or Marches for Jesus rallies at the capital. The video was totally skewed to present only a leftist viewpoint,” the Web site said. Andrea Lafferty, executive director of Sheldon’s group, said Thursday, “The department knows there’s a problem and we don’t know why they haven’t dealt with it in a timely manner.”
Sheldon’s attack engendered some e-mails supporting the video from gay rights supporters and others.
Documents about the revision were released to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the People For the American Way Foundation. Major portions of the 1,500 pages, provided to AP by the groups, were blacked out on grounds they included pre-decision information that did not have to be disclosed.
“This is yet another example of the Bush administration’s efforts to turn the federal government into a right-wing propaganda machine,” PFAW president Ralph G. Neas said. “Now they’re trying to rewrite history on the basis of ideology and abuse FOIA to conceal the evidence.”
Park Service Deputy Director Don Murphy disagreed. The service has a “responsibility to present a balanced approach. We do not respond solely to any special interest group,” he said.
On Feb. 3, 2003, the conservative Web site CNSNews.com criticized the video, particularly a montage of marchers carrying signs that included, “The Lord is my Shepherd and Knows I am Gay,” “Ratify the ERA” and “Keep Abortion Legal.”
Sheldon said in a broadcast transcript that was distributed among Park Service executives: “If Bush is in office, let’s have it our way. Let’s make it fair now.”
Within weeks of the first conservative complaints, the Park Service’s Harpers Ferry, W.Va., design center was put to work on revisions.
In a Feb. 20, 2003, e-mail, Tim Radford, a Harpers Ferry Center employee, requested a search of video archives “for footage of conservative - ‘right wing’ demonstrations (several lines blacked out) Lincoln Memorial. please ’rush.”’
On March 5, 2003, Radford e-mailed his boss: “replacing clinton would require creating a totally new interpretive production. please remember many other presidents, republican and democrat, are shown.”
In an Oct. 21, 2003, e-mail, Park Service production assistant Amber Perkins asked CNN for video of a recent ceremony at which a Bush administration political appointee helped unveil a marker at the spot where King gave his famous speech. She also requested “pro-gun rights/NRA events at the Lincoln memorial.”
A Feb. 3, 2005, document says the revisions project bought video footage of Bush and his father walking down the Lincoln Memorial steps, protesters carrying signs opposing gun control, a rally supporting the war in Iraq, a vigil supporting the war in Afghanistan and the Million Man March.
In a Dec. 10, 2004, memo, the Harpers Ferry Center said the revisions resulted from “concerns and complaints that the interpretive video in the memorial exhibit space focuses on protests from liberal or special interest groups from one point of view and excludes or minimizes other points of view of a more conservative perspective.” Proposed solutions are blacked out.
Interest in Lincoln's life
Vikki Keys, superintendent of Mall parks and monuments, said the video work has been folded into a routine reassessment of the entire exhibit that could produce an entirely new theme.
She said people today appear more interested in Lincoln’s life — “how he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from backwoods frontiersman to president” — than in the memorial’s role as a soapbox.
Jaime L. Marquez of Scottsdale, one of the original student organizers, said an exhibit on Lincoln’s life would be different from what the students attempted to create a decade ago.
“I hope they don’t completely redo it, because a lot of kids hold personal ownership of it. It demonstrates that even if you are a sixth-grader you can still make a difference,” she said
Marquez, who described herself as a Republican, said, “We had support from liberals and conservatives in Congress and we had students who were both. It was not a political platform.”
Gregg Behr, who as a student in Pittsburgh’s suburbs helped design the exhibit, said the protests shown in the video “should move, provoke or charge us and outrage us. That isn’t an endorsement of any view.
“I’m glad Reverend Sheldon is outraged,” Behr said. “An exhibit so bland that it offends no one would dishonor all our fellow Americans and friends who came to that space for all sorts of different reasons.”
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