The Sioux Falls School District is consolidating Mark Twain Elementary and Longfellow Elementary into one new building at the Twain site. Republican historian, Thune advisor, and Madison HS debate alumnus Jon Lauck is cool with keeping the Mark Twain name or naming the school for Lord Grizzly author Frederick Manfred or Giants in the Earth author Ole Rølvaag (yes! Norwegian orthography!). But he's making a real campaign for his preferred name: Karl E. Mundt Elementary. The party machine has its blog mouthpiece cranking the mill for Mundt Elementary and twisting the naming process into another political exercise in hating public education if it doesn't go the GOP's way.
Mundt is South Dakota's longest-serving Senator, the only one we elected to the U.S. Senate four times (following five terms in the U.S. House). He brought South Dakota all sorts of federal pork-barrel spending. At least as importantly, he was a noteworthy speech teacher and debate coach, a key player in developing South Dakota's outstanding culture of extracurricular speech competition, and a founder of the National Forensic League, which keeps speech and debate alive in schools across the country.
But he was also a Red-baiting, film-censoring SOB. His first Congressional floor speech kicked off an effort to suppress a film that he thought made South Dakota look bad. (Who knows what he would have tried to do to some of my blog posts?) He used Red-Scare tactics to attack political opponents and win elections, even as he advocated passionately for socialist policies like farm subsidies. Mundt was a close friend of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even after McCarthy's destructive power ebbed, Mundt voted against censuring one of the century's worst Senators, fretting that censuring McCarthy would fuel the worldwide Communist propaganda mills and make America look weak.
I suppose we could dismiss Mundt's coddling of McCarthy as a minor blemish on a career of public service. But it is no small blemish to think that censuring a man who used fear, lies, and reckless character assassination to gain power makes America look weak. Quite the contrary, Senator Mundt: our delay in calling out McCarthy's evil showed our weakness, Finally condemning McCarthy's evil, even if that evil somehow pragmatically bolstered our fight against real Communist threats, showed America's strength.
Mark Twain expressed some radical, pacifist, revolutionary views. His best friend was a socialist. Had Twain been alive during the 1940s and 1950s, McCarthy likely would have attacked Twain... and Mundt might well have sat by silently, not wanting to make America look weak in the war on Communism.
Both Mark Twain and Karl Mundt were complex Americans of notable achievements and flaws. Both have much to teach our children. But I get the sense that those backing Mundt's name for the new elementary school in Sioux Falls are interested in hagiography, not history.
Mark Twain Elementary: I like that name. Let's keep it.