When we name structures and streets after historical figures who have become icons in the fabric of our country's tapestry, we don't think twice about it. There are thousands of bridges, tunnels, roads, airports and schools bearing the names of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan in America.
Truth be told, all of those people had character flaws, detractors and even enemies in their day, but their accomplishments have withstood the test of time.
When a public servant is still with us, still in office, and that person's foibles and political wounds are still fresh in our minds, the whole naming thing seems a bit silly and contrived.
Such was the case in Madison Thursday, when Mayor Dave Cieslewicz announced he would like the downtown Madison high-speed rail station to be named after outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
"That was the mayor's idea. It's something he wants to make happen. We wouldn't have been able to get high-speed rail to come to Madison and Wisconsin without the governor, and we wouldn't get the station to come downtown without the governor," said Rachel Strauch-Nelson, communications director for Cieslewicz.
The idea that a Democratic mayor would want to name a public structure after a Democratic governor is not shocking.
What is ironic about it, though, is that naming the train station after Doyle would be a direct poke in the eye of former Republican Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. There was no governor in the country more impassioned about passenger rail than Thompson.
In fact, Thompson was named to the Amtrak board of directors and even had an Acela locomotive named after him.
"This is one of the greatest honors of my life," Thompson said at a Nov. 1, 2001, ceremony at the Union Station in Washington, D.C.
"In politics, you get a lot of awards and citations. But to have an engine named for me is something that touches me very deeply. I have a model of the ‘Governor Tommy Thompson' on my desk at the Department of Health and Human Services, and every time I see it, I'm reminded of why I love Amtrak and trains and why I'm so passionate about America's railways," Thompson said on that day. "There's something haunting about the sound of a train in the night. As a boy, it fired my imagination and inspired a sense of wonderful mystery. Thinking of where a train might be going … of what I would see as I traveled … of what I would find at the end of the line … all those things created within me a passion for rail travel that's never diminished."
Thompson's romantic fascination with trains stands in eerie contrast to his fellow Republicans' sharp criticisms of the high-speed rail plans today.
"America's railway system is not just a matter of history. America still needs a strong passenger rail system. Without it, we discourage economic growth in urban areas. Passenger rail - and specifically, high-speed rail - is important to the economic growth of our cities and our overall transportation system in a nation of nearly 300 million people," Thompson said at that ceremony nine years ago. "In Wisconsin and in eight other states, work continues on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. In Wisconsin, the goal is to have high-speed service from Madison to Milwaukee by the end of 2003." (To view the text of Thompson's entire speech on that day, click here.)
Thompson's vision is on schedule to come true by 2013 - unless members of his own party are successful in their threats to derail it.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor, again vowed Thursday to stop the high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison if he is elected.
"Every announcement by Gov. Doyle and (Milwaukee) Mayor (Tom) Barrett on their controversial train boondoggle further commits our state to their pet project that taxpayers literally cannot afford. Our state's transportation fund has been raided to the tune of $1.2 billion, which has delayed badly needed investment in our existing roads and bridges across Wisconsin. As governor, I will stop this misguided and wasteful project," Walker said.
We do not yet know how history will judge these gentlemen. If high-speed rail is successful and helps America compete in a global economy in the 21st century, we may indeed one day be naming structures after Doyle, Thompson, Barrett and Obama. If high-speed rail becomes a multi-billion boondoggle that no one uses and saddles the next generations with insurmountable debts, well, a different narrative will be told.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.