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Paul Soglin, George Washington, And The Symbolism Of Keys

January 7, 2018

The gotcha moment last week in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race was designed to create much chatter.  For having the ability to hit a controversial nail square on the head Governor Scott Walker succeeded.  Walker stated how alarming it was that in 1975 Madison Mayor Paul Soglin gave the key to the city to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  Politicos of all stripes are talking about it, mentioning it on social media, and writing columns concerning it in newspapers.

There are many favorable things to say about Soglin.  He is a respected leader, effective politician, and able to stand before an audience without notes and respond to questions with paragraph-length answers strewn with data.   One has to truly admire such a person.  Just recently I again called his office to register support for an action he took–the latest being his tough stand about liquor sales on State Street.

But when it comes to the symbolic move of giving the key of the city to Castro there is no way to say it other than to admit history agrees with Walker.  Except in some tortured revisionist writing the real world of the Castro dictatorship is well known.   Simply brutal and unforgiving.  That view of the Castro regime was known in 1975 when Soglin made his move.  As compelling as it may seem to link that symbolic gesture to improving communications and fostering better international relations in Cuba, let it not be forgotten that allowing a dictator to have the type of positive inroads with such propaganda was not warranted considering the despicable way he ruled.

Some argue that Soglin’s action was merely a symbolic move, and Good Lord, it was more than 40 years ago so let us move on and talk about the issues of the day.  But for many people symbolic actions are taken more seriously and it can be argued, should not be treated so cavalierly.

At George Washington’s Mount Vernon there is among so many artifacts, one that simply demands to be gazed at and pondered–regardless of how many others are pressing behind urging for those ahead to move along.  (Believe me, I know.)  Sent by Washington’s longtime friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, the key to the Bastille is hung prominently in the president’s state dining room.   The key represented a major turning point in the global surge of liberty.  It is noted Washington knew the significance of the key as a “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another.”

Do symbols, such as the key to Washington, or the one to Castro, matter?  I believe they do.

Not because they are, as in the case of the one in Virginia, something that can be seen and almost touched but because these symbols go beyond the tangible.  These symbols are steeped in their own significance of idealism and hope.

It is proper to always urge for the democratic rights of others in places around the world.  I applaud Soglin for making the verbal pleas for a more reform-minded Cuba during his discussions with Castro. But a repressive regime should never score a propaganda victory, as with a key to one of our nation’s capital cities.

Instead of Soglin now doubling down on why he thought the gesture with the key was important at the time, I wish he could be reflective about the decades of misery that Castro inflicted on his country.  I genuinely think elected officials who can concede making mistakes are stronger as a result.

And so it goes.

  1. Val permalink
    February 1, 2018 4:28 AM

    Love the use of history mixed with current events. Your blog is unique in Madison.

  2. January 9, 2018 10:45 AM

    Thanks for the link–I so loved this part of my time at Mount Vernon.

  3. January 9, 2018 10:20 AM

    Thanks! For those wishing to check out the fascinating history of “George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key,” go to http://www.LibertyKey.US

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