Can you believe it was seven years ago that Attorney General John Ashcroft was outed for covering up the statues of the naked ladies in the Department of Justice building? He apparently didn't like being photographed in front of the statues (representing "The Spirit of Justice") when he gave speeches and press conferences. It was major news and, as a result, fodder for weeks of late night talk show jokes. So this week, President Barack Obama gave an economics speech at Georgetown University, a Catholic school in Washington. Daniel Pulliam looked at some of the coverage already.
Afterwards, Cybercast News Service broke an interesting story with a religion angle, "Georgetown Says It Covered Over Name of Jesus to Comply With White House Request."
It's actually a really good story. It doesn't overhype what happened but explains that the White House wanted all symbols covered up. While bunting covered up most of the backdrop, the letters IHS (derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus (iota-eta-sigma) and sometimes interpreted as meaning Iesus Hominum Salvator ("Jesus, Savior of men" in Latin)) peeked out from above the bunting. So the university took the extra step of covering up Jesus' name with black-painted plywood -- or so the investigative team at CNS reports:
On Wednesday, CNSNews.com inspected the pediment embedded in the wall at the back of the stage in Gaston Hall, where Obama delivered his speech. The letters "IHS" were not to be found. They appeared to be shrouded with a triangle of black-painted plywood.
Pictures of the wooden pediment prior to Obama's speech show the letters "IHS" in gold. Many photos posted on the Internet of other events at Gaston Hall show the letters clearly.
The White House did not respond to a request from CNSNews.com to comment on the covering up of Jesus' name at Gaston Hall.
My favorite reader comment about this story came from someone who was wondering why we hadn't covered this story:
It's been on Drudge, it's all over the net! Where is M.Z.?
Well, frankly I was waiting for more mainstream coverage to see how fairly they looked at it and to see how it compared with coverage of the previous administration. I mean, you would expect that covering up the name Jesus would elicit some media notice. And yet, it appears that the news is only of interest to Fox News, The Washington Times, and various conservative, Christian and Catholic sites. It's just so interesting to me to compare the out-of-control coverage of Ashcroft's draping over of ladyparts and the relative lack of interest in the Obama Administration's request to secularize the Georgetown University space. There is so much to explore and yet much of the media don't seem to think it's a worthy news story.
Julia Duin at the Times covered it on her blog and got some Catholic perspective:
Not every Catholic institution would have caved to quite this extent. Victor Nakas, spokesman for Catholic University, e-mailed me to say several presidents have visited CUA and the most recent administration official to speak there was then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
"I can't imagine, as the bishops' university and the national university of the Catholic Church, that we would ever cover up our religious art or signage for any reason," Mr. Nakas wrote. "Our Catholic faith is integral to our identity as an institution of higher education.
I called the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Institute at Georgetown University, who was at the speech, as to what he thought.
"It is more for camera quality than anything else," he surmised. "They don't want distractions that would make the eye wander. I don't think this is motivated by theology, but by communications strategy."
Reese is totally the Larry Sabato of Catholics, isn't he? Anyway, I know the media fealty to Obama is such that The Onion ran a piece this week (featuring Newsweek's Jon Meacham!) about how the press wouldn't mention anything if Obama murdered someone. But to not cover the story about something like this -- either in terms of what it means for Jesuits, Catholic educational institutions in general or the White House -- is just odd. Particularly as we head toward Obama's controversial commencement address and honorary degree at Notre Dame. And particularly with how much interest there is in this story. And particularly with how important it is to get straight news out when emotions are running high.
Image via White House archives of Laura Bush speech at Georgetown University.