As a journalist, I'm constantly amazed by the public's ability to ignore big, important stories while fixating on the seemingly mundane.
Take the statue of Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne – please.
When I wrote last December about Mayor Tom Henry's desire to improve the visibility of George Ganiere's sculpture of Wayne on horseback by moving it from Freimann Square to the nearby Courthouse Green at Main and Clinton streets, I considered the topic interesting from an historical and aesthetic standpoint but not all that controversial.
True, some members of the Courthouse Preservation Trust didn't like the idea of cluttering up the small park just east of the Courthouse. But otherwise the proposal seemed pretty innocuous: just $100,000 or so to move the statue a couple of blocks.
Within a couple of weeks, however, almost every other news outlet in town had chased the story, this newspaper editorialized about it and pretty soon letters of opposition and even outrage came pouring in. Some, including the National Park Service, wanted to protect the integrity of the park's original design; others objected to glorifying a man whose name lives on only because he was very good at subjugating Indians. Most, however, simply objected to “wasting” the money. So I suppose it's Big News that Henry seems not to have been deterred by the unexpectedly large and negative reaction.
Friday morning, two employees of GME Testing of Fort Wayne were at the corner of Main and Clinton, drilling deep into the soil to determine whether the ground is solid enough to support the weight of the statue, which was dedicated in Hayden (now Nuchols) Park on Maumee Avenue in 1918 before moving to Freimann Square in 1973. That's necessary because when Courthouse Green was developed about 13 years ago, remnants of some the buildings that had been there were simply buried, creating a potentially unstable base for such a heavy sculpture.
The final results aren't in, but the initial results seem encouraging – at least if you think Wayne should move.
“Nothing but dirt,” GME employee Guy Johnson said as he inspected the pile of dark soil the bit brought to the surface.
So unless something changes it appears likely that Henry – normally a cautious politician – will ignore public opinion and move the statue to an intersection used by 40,000 vehicles every day. After which there will be a renewed flurry of complaints about spending $100,000 from an annual city budget of more than $170 million.
Petty? Perhaps. But I've been thinking about this – always a dangerous thing – and I'm not so sure.
Just last week, after all, I tried to illustrate the folly of Washington's budget-sequestration fight by pointing out that the federal government was encouraging people to apply for “forgivable” housing loans of up to $15,000 just one day before $85 billion in mandatory spending cuts were to take effect, supposedly ending life as we know it.
Both cases reflect the same uncomfortable reality: Government spends so much of our money, often unwisely or even frivolously, that the issues involved are simply too big to comprehend. So we tune them out, until somebody finds a way to simplify the complex.
That, I think, is what has happened in the great Anthony Wayne debate. It's not the money or even the politics, it's the principle: That $100,000 could be spent on something else, probably something far more important.
I still like the idea of moving the statue, but I can hardly object to the principle, since I've resorted to it myself.
But don't feel too sorry for the politicians. They, too, often use small and easily understood examples when trying to make big, complicated points. Consider:
Faced with the need to cut the $711 million executive office budget by $24 million, what does President Obama ostentatiously eliminate? Public tours of the White House. Nobody can truly comprehend $16 trillion in national debt, but the disappointment felt by people who had planned to visit the White House is universally understood.
That's precisely why, according to numerous press reports, officials have been ordered to make the cuts as noticeable as possible. Nobody's going to support a tax increase so the administration can give the new Islamist government of Egypt $250 million, as it did this week, but not even cold-hearted Republicans want to see children cry.
It would be nice if more people paid attention to the big stuff; this nation needs another tax increase like it needs another hole in the head. But Fort Wayne should count its blessings that, so far, it's escaped with just a hole in the ground.