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Heroes, villains and tearing down history

September 5, 2017

America’s ongoing fight over statues and memorials carries an inherent risk. If we erase from public places any mention of unscrupulous characters, this effort could extend to everyone from Pete Domenici to Andrew Carnegie to Pancho Villa.

Depending on how you see the world, honoring somebody famous can amount to praising somebody who’s disreputable.

New Mexico has buildings named for people whose lives were a mix of bad acts and good deeds. For example, the federal courthouse in Albuquerque and a research institute at New Mexico State University are named after Domenici, who served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate.

There was a secret side to Domenici’s public life. He fathered a child outside his marriage in 1978. That same year, he faced the only difficult re-election campaign of his career in the Senate. Had news of his infidelity leaked, Domenici would have been finished politically. The young woman Domenici was involved with was the daughter of another U.S. senator, Paul Laxalt of Nevada.

So Domenici engaged in a coverup. He kept his secret for 35 years, built his influence in the Senate and used his seniority to bring federal money to New Mexico.

He also practiced hypocrisy. In 1999, when voting in the Senate to convict President Clinton after Clinton had been impeached in a sex scandal of his own, Domenici said: “Truthfulness is the first pillar of good character in the Character Counts program which I have been part of establishing in New Mexico.”

Domenici packaged himself as a devout family man, the married father of eight. While ripping Clinton for lying about an affair, Domenici didn’t mention his ninth child, Adam Laxalt. Laxalt is now attorney general of Nevada.

As a senator, Domenici was aggressive and vain, diligent and deceptive, intelligent and manipulative. His name doesn’t belong on a courthouse, where finding truth should be the goal. But at this stage, I see no purpose in erasing Domenici’s name from public institutions. It would achieve nothing except to humiliate an 85-year-old man.

New Mexico has named public places for others with checkered histories and even records of violence.

Pancho Villa State Park sounds alluring to tourists. But at least some residents who live near the park detest the name, which honors the rough Mexican frontiersman whose raiders stormed Columbus, N.M., in 1916. Villa’s men killed eight U.S. soldiers and 10 civilians in Columbus, a border town that had a small military camp.

State legislators in 1959 approved the law establishing Pancho Villa State Park. Such a bill would bring protesters to the Capitol today, but that was a different time.

Should a state park carry the name of a revolutionary who terrorized innocents? I say no, but august legislators get to decide if the issue should be revisited. They often tackle less important matters, such as bills to create an official state winter holiday song and to make the green chile cheeseburger New Mexico’s official hamburger. Still, the chances of legislators stripping Villa’s name from the park are slender.

Along the same lines, the New Mexico town of Las Vegas since 1904 has had a library named after Carnegie, one of the more ruthless industrial captains in American history. He exploited his steelworkers and used brute force to cripple them during strikes.

Then, in a role reversal, Carnegie financed some 2,500 libraries across the country. Those libraries have changed millions of lives for the better. Carnegie went from villain to benefactor of the people.

Should his name remain on the libraries he made possible? I say yes. His story of redemption has always stirred me. Yet I know this is inconsistent. Carnegie once locked out steelworkers at a mill in Western Pennsylvania. Nine of them died in violence that followed. Carnegie then broke the union and cut wages.

Of all the statues that have been removed from public places, only one made any difference to me. Penn State University yanked down the statue of Joe Paterno, who had an incredible run as the school’s football coach.

Paterno was head coach of the Nittany Lions from 1966 until 2011, when a campus pedophilia scandal that centered on his onetime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, finally came to light. Paterno had been anything but vigilant in reporting Sandusky, who’s now in prison for molesting boys.

Paterno won more than 400 games and had been treated with reverence everywhere he went, in part because he cultivated an image of unselfishness. He donated money to Penn State’s academic programs, and he refused to print the names of his players on the back of their jerseys, even after every other big-time program did so. Fans called him Joe Pa, as though he were a strict but benevolent grandfather to one and all.

In truth, Pennsylvania’s best newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shaped his positive image through negligence. They covered Penn State’s games with extraordinary resources. But, until the end, they didn’t report how Paterno would do anything to win and at any cost.

I was part of the Post-Gazette staff that ignored everything about Paterno except what his powerful teams did between the chalked lines. I still feel guilty about my failure to sense the deeper story and pursue it.

Paterno didn’t deserve a statue. Domenici could not have won six terms in the Senate or received statesman status without his deceit.

They weren’t heroes, but they weren’t always bad, either. History is complicated. It gets no easier by trying to change the landscape.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.