On Tuesday of this week, Wisconsin will finally close a shameful chapter in its history by paying tribute to one of our most enduring public figures. We are finally celebrating a Wisconsin resident who put us on the national map – someone who made Milwaukee a fashionable place. Set aside, for a moment, the fact that he remained enthusiastic about high school girls well into his 30’s – the man could start a jukebox with his fist. And thus, we honor The Fonz with his own statue for making Milwaukee “cool” for over a decade.

The Wisconsin landscape is replete with statues. Abraham Lincoln casts a watchful eye over the UW-Madison campus from his perch on Bascom Hill. (Presumably, watching modern students emancipate shots of Jose Cuervo from State Street bar drink specials.) Hans Christian Heg, the highest-ranking Wisconsin soldier killed in the Civil War, was honored in 1926 with a statue outside the Wisconsin Capitol. Certainly more recognizable to Wisconsin residents is Vince Lombardi, immortalized by a statue outside Lambeau Field. Jean Nicolet, credited as being the first white man to set foot in Northeast Wisconsin, is memorialized with a statue in Red Banks. (It is also rumored that after settling near Green Bay, Nicolet was the first man to call for Ted Thompson to be s-canned for running Brett Favre out of town.)

Despite these notable figures being immortalized by statues, it is curious that most of them were built nearly a century ago (Lombardi being the exception, but he’s a sports icon.) When reflecting on the significance of the Fonzie statue, it seems reasonable to ask: Why don’t we honor legitimately important people with statues anymore?

In fact, most of our recognizable statues actually seem to be more in the mold of the Fonzie statue. That is, they represent either fictional characters or animals.

Visitors to Eau Claire can go see the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox. If you’re in Delavan, you can go see a statue of Romeo, the Killer Elephant, famous for killing five people during his circus career – fortunately for all involved, Romeo’s statue shows the elephant stomping on a circus clown. Sitting atop the State Capitol is “Wisconsin,” a statue of a hypothetical woman meant to symbolize our state motto, “Forward.” (Plans to alter the statue to make it more representative of the modern Wisconsin woman have been put on hold, as the sculptor is figuring out how to incorporate a beer, cigarette, and Favre jersey into the statue.)

So, why do we only build statues of fictional humans? It seems to me that there are two plausible explanations.

First, the public doesn’t have any confidence in their government leaders anymore. Think of the public officials of the last century in Wisconsin that everyone can agree deserves a statue. The most obvious seems to be Tommy Thompson, but even that seems to be a bit much, as Tommy had plenty of enemies. It appears Governor Thompson will merely have to settle for having every building around the Capitol named after him. Plus, Tommy is still living – the chances he does something to embarrass the state is still hanging out there.

It is clear the public has completely lost faith in its elected leaders. WPRI conducts annual polls that measure citizens’ views of their elected officials, and their approval rating has never been worse. Plus, there are “good government” groups whose only reason to exist is to convince the public that their public servants are corrupt. And in the infrequent event they’re right, it sullies the name of all public officials, whether truly deserved or only marginally deserved.

In fact, this disdain for public figures is so strong, it appears to be retroactive. Good luck trying to pay tribute to any of our Founding Fathers these days, as most of them were white slave owners. One can only imagine the opposition to building a statue of James Madison in our state’s capital, which just happens to be named after him. As a result, Madison features a statue of football coach Barry Alvarez, but not the author of the Bill of Rights.

Second, there simply aren’t the huge issues out there to be solved that would warrant a modern politician the adulation necessary for a statue. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, General George Washington saved our country from the British, and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jim Doyle addressed the closing of the Janesville auto plant by rapping.

When he was a child, Gaylord Nelson wondered whether a career in government was worth it – he thought his hero, Senator Robert M. La Follette, would have solved all the problems by then. (La Follette has a notable statue, but it is sitting in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.)

While it’s true that there are problems government needs to address (most notably, by showing some humility), it’s clear that the great issues may all be in our distant past – and with their passing, so go the individuals with the courage to fix them. Nobody’s building a statue of anyone for guaranteeing my constitutional right to smoke in a bar.

There appears to be a strong correlation between what people think about their elected officials and their desire to memorialize them with a statue. The days of universal admiration for our public servants is long gone – as are the great issues they stared down, with steely fortitude.

Instead, we now pay tribute to non-threatening fictional characters, sports figures, and deadly circus animals. Sadly, as our society becomes more and more fractured, elephants crushing clowns seems the be the only thing we can all get behind.

-August 18, 2008