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Opinion: Dulles Airport should keep its name, and Trump can have Rikers

Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “Borges and Me,” a memoir of his travels with Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges in the highlands of Scotland in 1971. It will soon be turned into a film.

The news is mostly tragic these days, with destructive wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the usual drumbeat of mass shootings and climate disasters. I’m often hesitant to turn on the radio when I wake up. What next? The arrival of some needed comic relief, unexpectedly, in the form of a Republican proposal to change the name of Washington Dulles International Airport to Donald J. Trump International Airport.

And this was not “Saturday Night Live.”

Jay Parini - Courtesy Oliver Parini
Jay Parini - Courtesy Oliver Parini

Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania, the chief deputy majority whip in the House, introduced this hilarious bill this week with six other Republicans: Michael Waltz of Florida, Andrew Ogles of Tennessee, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Barry Moore of Alabama and Troy Nehls of Texas.

“Freedom. Prosperity. Strength. That’s what America stood for under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump — the best president of my lifetime,” Reschenthaler wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

It never fails to shock me how GOP officials seem endlessly willing to grovel at the feet of their master, hoping to curry favor with a man whose ego is beyond satiation.

Trump must be laughing at them. I certainly am.

I travel a lot, and was at Dulles last week. Believe me, it could use some attention — not with congressional rebranding, but with an influx of public funds. It’s a nightmarish hub, with a tram system that feels wildly outmoded and slow: Walking often seems faster than riding from gate to gate. I often fly out of Dulles rather late in the day, and there isn’t a place to get a sandwich or cup of coffee after about 9 p.m. Going through customs and passport control at Dulles is arduously slow. The customer reviews of this airport are not heartening.

Of the more than 25 million travelers who poured through this airport in 2023, many of them are international visitors. Can you imagine the impression it would make to arrive at something called Trump International?

Democrats reacted to the House bill quickly. The very notion of pasting the name of a twice-impeached and four-times-indicted former president on a major airport is beyond ridiculous. “Donald Trump is facing 91 felony charges,” Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, whose district includes part of Dulles, said in a statement. “If Republicans want to name something after him, I’d suggest they find a federal prison.”

Rep. Don Beyer, another Northern Virginia Democrat, remembered the day Trump enacted his 2017 executive order to bar travelers from certain majority-Muslim countries entry into the US — and how lawmakers went to Dulles to press for legal representation for those detained under the policy.

Trump is a man already found liable by a New York judge for business fraud and found liable by a jury for defamation and sexual abuse. God knows what lies ahead for him in the four trials that await him; Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

It probably makes more sense to rename Rikers Island, that 413-acre jail complex in the Bronx, after one of New York’s most famous defendants. Trump Island, where when you arrive for processing, you get an orange wig to go with your orange jumpsuit. And maybe a copy of the Trump Bible to read.

Joking aside, it matters what we call our airports. We want to remember and lift up people who have been important to our nation, to the democratic project. President Ronald Reagan was a man of dignity, and it made sense to rename Washington National Airport for him. JFK was an appropriate name to replace Idlewild Airport with. Edward O’Hare, after whom the Chicago airport is named, was a genuine hero, an aviator who died in combat in 1943. But Trump?

Trump’s war record was not memorable. He evaded going to Vietnam because of “bone spurs,” getting a letter to avoid service from his father’s podiatrist friend. Rather famously, he allegedly called those who lost their lives or were wounded in American wars “losers” and “suckers.” He said that Arizona Sen. John McCain was not a war hero “because he was captured” and endured five years as a prisoner of war.

Enough with Trump, who claims he’s being harassed by the justice system. He’s not being indicted because he’s running for president. More likely, he’s running for president because he wants to distract us from his criminal indictments.

John Foster Dulles was, I would argue, a man of integrity whose name should stay where it is. He was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s close friend and advisor, and served as a revered secretary of state from 1953-1959. He was, of course, of his era, and his strong stance against all forms of communism defined his career. As with most who attain high office, he had his admirers and detractors.

“Mr. Dulles was a man of complex character, full of paradoxes,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary. “A shrewd and successful corporation lawyer, he was also a moralist and political philosopher. He could marshal his ideas swiftly, fluently and extemporaneously; he coined many phrases, but he was not noted as an originator of new ideas.”

However unoriginal as a thinker, Dulles was someone of stature, a dedicated public servant worth recalling. And — how low have we sunk — he was not the first former president in history to face criminal charges (four indictments, no less) and stand accused of trying to overturn the results of a peaceful election.

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