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Memorials // HONORING A PERSON OR A CAUSE?

The Great Cigar Controversy, as they called it, unfolded 32 years ago as William Mozart McVey was working on a 9-foot statue of Sir Winston Churchill to be placed outside the British embassy here.

Someone pointed out that McVey was sculpturing a big stogie in Sir Winston's left hand. There was an ugly fight in the press and in diplomatic circles over this vulgar accessory.

Chop it off, critics demanded. Stuff it, McVey responded; he looked at 300 photographs of the guy before he designed this thing, and only 22 of them showed him sans cheroot. The English Speaking Union, which was footing the bill, polled its chapters. The cigar won, 7 to 5. Today the statue is one of the most recognized sculptures on earth.

This is interesting because the Great Wheelchair Controversy, as it will be called, unfolded quite differently alongside the Potomac River just last week.

The government had spent 42 years designing a 7{-acre memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and just as it prepared to open the finished monument, restrooms, gift shop and bookstore to tourists, the disability movement complained that there was no statue of FDR in a wheelchair, and threatened to protest unless it got one.

Roosevelt spent his presidency in a wheelchair, of course, disabled by polio, though he never advertised it. Leaving out a wheelchair is a slur to disabled people, the movement said.

Well, actually, one statue depicts Roosevelt in a chair with wheels, little bitty casters, like the ones on office furniture.

No matter. Nobody told advocates for the disabled to stuff it. President Clinton, who has allowed as how his bum knee helped him feel the pain of the disabled, asked Congress for a pro-wheelchair resolution. The Senate obliged; the House is expected to follow. The disability folks canceled their protest and claimed victory.

Anyway, put aside the substance of the wheelchair debate. There's a bigger question: What will political correctness do to the monument business?

This is no easy question. In simpler times, the stock answer to the query "What will my monument look like?" was also simple. Monuments were either Egyptian (Washington Monument), Classical (Lincoln Memorial; Jefferson Memorial) or Equestrian (generic man on horse).

None offered much opportunity to offend special-interest groups.

But Classical and Egyptian are passe, and the horse has gone the way of the horse. Since the 1970s, revolutions in design and in public sophistication have made it possible to create monuments that either offend or soothe entire assemblages of interest groups in a single blow.

The archetype is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It angered conservatives, veterans, women and various minorities until a flagpole and multiracial statues of male soldiers and female nurses were erected to address perceived slights.

That made an impression. Since then, a Korean War memorial has included stainless-steel statues of white, black, Korean and American Indian soldiers, and a separate memorial to women veterans has been placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

One can argue the merits of wheelchair statues at the FDR memorial one way or the other. U.S. News & World Report, for instance, said last week that there may be no more fitting way to present the case for the disabled, even as it argued that memorials are honors, not billboards for the cause of the moment.

Nobody wants a memorial statue of John F. Kennedy shirtless in a back brace, a blonde on one arm, the magazine noted.

Or do they?

One thing the FDR flap makes clear is that monumental correctness is not limited to the tired old dictates of gender and color. Architecture _ and especially monuments _ mirrors the preoccupations of civilization, said Norman Koonce, the head of the American Architectural Foundation.

And so it may not be all that hard to conceive of a Jefferson Memorial embellished with a granite rendering of the Founder's stable of slaves. Or a new sculpture of Churchill: no addictive, carcinogenic cigar but some reference _ a black dog at his side, perhaps _ symbolizing his ability to plan a Normandy invasion while battling clinical depression.

Robert Berks, the great sculptor whose 24-foot statue of Albert Einstein is a Washington landmark, has a head of Roosevelt in the entrance of the National Archives here.

Ebullient and smiling broadly, this FDR has a mouth full of obviously crooked teeth. An insult? Or proof of his triumph over terrible dentistry? You be the judge. Berks says he did it that way because the man had lousy teeth.

"As an artist," he said, "you have to stick by your guns."

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