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Visitors, from left, Rob Calhoun, George Johnson and John Baston from Massachusetts all feel that today’s political leaders fall short compared with American presidents of the past. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Visitors, from left, Rob Calhoun, George Johnson and John Baston from Massachusetts all feel that today’s political leaders fall short compared with American presidents of the past. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

AMERICAN POSTCARDS

Rushmore’s presidents carved legacies today’s candidates can’t match Add to ...

They’re titans of the American presidency, carved here in granite peaks above the rolling hills of South Dakota. Their likenesses, like their legacies, stand tall.

George Washington, the first president. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Theodore Roosevelt, trust-buster. All immortalized here at Mount Rushmore – “a picture of hope fulfilled,” Calvin Coolidge, president when work on the monument began in 1927, once said.

Such lofty sentiments, and bigger-than-life heroes, are part of a bygone era. Voters visiting Rushmore say today’s candidates just can’t compare.

“It would be kind of difficult to see Mitt Romney’s face up there,” says Lindsey Powell, a 29-year-old from Bloomington, Ill., who was among the visitors to Mount Rushmore on Tuesday. Much has changed, she says, since the Washington-through-Roosevelt period of American history. “But I doubt their elections were this dramatic. I can’t imagine that being the case.”

Dave Mutchler, 60, was visiting from Carlisle, Pa. – a swing state in this closely fought race. He voted for John McCain in 2008. This time, he’s undecided, saying neither of the candidates is fit for the Oval Office.

“No, I don’t think these two running for election in our country today will ever make Mount Rushmore or any other place. I just don’t think they get it,” says Mr. Mutchler, a retired police officer, standing on the viewing platform at the monument site. “They’re icons of history. They’ve done some wonderful things. Name one of them and they’ve gone down in history as good leaders. And I don’t think Obama or his running mate or who is running against them will ever make good leaders, in my opinion.”

Friends Rob Calhoun, George Johnson and John Baston, all 22 years old, stopped at the memorial Tuesday during a road trip across the United States. The trio of college graduates are from South Hadley, Mass., a state where Mr. Romney served as governor. They all voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and plan to again, but they also say today’s leaders don’t match up to the legacies of past presidents.

“I don’t think that anybody really stacks up,” says Mr. Johnson, adding, “Let’s hope, [in terms of] Romney, we don’t even have to have this conversation. But Obama, I mean, let’s see what he does if he gets re-elected.”

Referring to the men immortalized at Mount Rushmore, he adds: “These guys were helping shape America into what it is today. The presidents nowadays, they’re not doing anything like abolishing slavery or anything like that. Those are major changes in America. These guys were front-runners on that.”

Mention of today’s race draws cringes at apolitical Rushmore, but there are polarized views. Brian Reed, a 54-year-old visitor from Illinois, said George W. Bush deserves a spot on the mountain for his handling of the response to the Sept. 11 attacks. “As far as Romney and Obama, in my opinion Obama should not be up there and would not be up there,” Mr. Reed says. “If he is up there, it’s just maybe because of the colour of his skin, and Romney, he hasn’t proven anything yet.”

To young American voters, the memory of the four ex-presidents is faded. The faces of Washington and Lincoln book-end the monument. “I don’t even know who the two middle people are,” admits Mr. Calhoun, laughing, prompting head-shaking from other tourists nearby.

Mount Rushmore, in that way, is more than a memorial – it’s something of a high-water mark. Congress, in approving funds to finish it, demanded that no admission fee ever be charged (though parking is $11).

“It will be decidedly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning and altogether worthy of our country,” Mr. Coolidge said 85 years ago.

As for the current crop of politicians, their worthiness is decidedly in doubt.

“Maybe in time,” says Michelle Hammerly, 52, a Wisconsin nurse, holding her camera up to snap a photo of the memorial. “But not now.”

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