Uncommon Ground

Scripps-Howard News Service 5.07.02
Balint Vazsonyi

"The George Washington University celebrates 90 years in Foggy Bottom" - we read on the cover of a beautifully produced, glossy, 8½X11, 24-page color booklet my wife and I received in the mail. "Common Ground" is the title, and we were sent separate copies. Very thoughtful, perhaps a bit extravagant.

A "pictorial essay," it is called. And, yes, it is full of pictures. And, as we know, a picture is worth - how many? A thousand words?

Ah, the pictures.

For openers, we do get to see the Marquis de Lafayette, and General "Billy" Mitchell, Class of 1899, early champion of the need for U.S. air power. But then the book begins to tell the real story.

Next to Lafayette, we see a pair of coeds, vintage 1948, surveying the landscape from the roof of Strong Hall. Strong Hall? Turn the page. Hattie M. Strong's picture is there, as the person for whom the first women's dormitory was named in 1934. On the opposite page, we see Mabel Nelson Thurston, the first female undergraduate admitted in 1888. To the left of Hattie Strong, we observe students selling war stamps - naturally all female - and WW II-era nurses.

Turn the page to see First Daughter Margaret Truman.

Turn the page again to see Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

You have just seen the bridge between Common Ground's common themes: women and Democrats.

To the right of a girl giving a 'flu shot to another girl, we encounter Arkansas Democrat, Senator J. William Fulbright. The page "Campus Culture" features a very pretty girl, obviously dancing. To be fair, the half face visible at the end of her outstretched arm does seem to belong to a person of the male persuasion. But on the opposite page, it is, naturally, again "female students" who "relax and take in some sun on the roof garden."

On to sports. A group photo of the seven members of the original (1917) GW women's basket ball team (how did they put it together without Title IX?) leads the page. Underneath, we meet the greatly enlarged women's basketball team of 2000-2001.

I know for a fact that young men, too, attend GW, because I see them amble across red lights, as frustrated motorists helplessly watch their green turn to yellow. Some photographic evidence of male existence is presented on the page opposite the basketball teams, showing students who "kick back in the Student Union Annex." True, all the young women face the camera, and we see only the backs of the young men, but their attire and hair style (the picture's date is 1955) leaves no doubt.

The next spread is dominated by a large portrait of President John F. Kennedy, though - to be fair - there is an archival insert of President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican. And then, the mother load. As we turn the page, a picture of the Dalai Lama leads to Mikhail Gorbachev, then to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then to Dan Rather of CBS-TV. Underneath, smiling broadly, we gaze upon a good-sized William Jefferson Clinton. Below, on a giant screen, Wolf Blitzer of CNN addresses a town meeting.

The only appearance by a Republican president of more recent vintage is a small photograph showing Ronald Reagan in a bathrobe. The occasion: he was admitted to George Washington University Hospital after being shot.

And speaking of that hospital - as well as of the clinic associated with it - even in its antiquated facility, it is a jewel of Washington, D.C., where men and women of excellence and devotion work day and night. Knowing what I know of the care they provide, it bothers me seriously that I find myself writing such a vitriolic piece about the mother institution.

But it simply won't do for a university in the nation's capital, named for the father of our country, to be so blatantly political and partisan and, adding insult to injury, call it "common ground." It is impossible to know whether those responsible actually think this way, or try to appear something they are not in order to score points. Which is worse? I was seriously offended upon arriving at the exact center of the issue. There, a full-page picture shows the university president in top hat, "visiting with local children." I could just hear the designers saying, "what we need here is some cute black kids to show outreach."

We owe the definition of "American" to George Washington. No one could have been, no one has been, more committed to our union. And no place is as much under the natural obligation to serve and accommodate all as a university. Significantly absent from the commemorative publication are reminders of the man whose name it bears, references to the purpose of a university, and any allusion to teaching and learning. In 90 years, they have accomplished nothing as a school?

Unless there is some urgent rectification of this atrocity, the institution in question no longer qualifies to carry George Washington's name. They need to find an alternative - something appropriate to this booklet.

The name that comes to mind combines girlhood and heavy involvement with a president representing the Democratic Party. The name that comes to mind is Monica Lewinsky. She lived for some time in close proximity to the campus, and naming one for her is about the only compensation she has yet to receive for all she had to swallow over the years.