Amid the disheartening economic news and the many crisis the new president faces both here and abroad, this is a small story that might escape notice. But it speaks volumes about this administration's pledge to stop governing out of fear.
President Barack Obama has told Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that he'd like to see visitors allowed back into the Crown atop the Statue of Liberty. Once a popular destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike, the Crown has been closed since the terrorist attacks on September 11.
Like millions of visitors, I've climbed the Crown. The view is not what you remember; the windows in the Crown are tiny and the viewing space so crowded that no one lingers very long. But if you climbed the Crown you never forget it, for this is one of those instances where, as philosophers like to say, it's the journey not the destination that matters.
It's a slow long trudge of a climb, not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic. The metal spiral staircase was never intended to handle visitors; it was a maintenance staircase, a way for workers to get inside the statue for needed repairs. And as the steps get narrower, the spiral gets tighter, and when your head is an inch from the shoe of the person in front of you, you do indeed realize that the staircase was never meant for this many people.
But the tight fit and tiny stairs is not what I remember most; anyone who's climbed towers or cathedral domes across Europe will agree that those staircases can also be crowded, somewhat dangerous and difficult to maneuver (and of course much, much older). My lasting memory of the climb to the Crown are of massive metal folds, long elegant creases and giant drapes. Climbing the Crown is literally a climb inside the Statue of Liberty, and I don't know of another place that offers a similar experience. The whole way up you are surrounded by the statue's sides; you see every huge fold and pleat in her dress, and that's an impressive and not easily forgotten image. After seeing the statue from the inside you exit with a new appreciation for the artistry and skill of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed Lady Liberty in 1884. And you honestly never look at the Statue the same way again.
After September 11, I thought it was wrong to close the Crown. I understood the security concerns, and knew access to monuments around the country was likewise being limited. But the Statue is the first image of America for millions of immigrants, and for untold millions it is the iconic symbol of the United States. And the importance of the role of that symbol and what it stood for was never more needed than on September 11th. While the smoke from the Twin Towers site billowed into the clear fall sky, the Statue stood undamaged, a silent witness in the harbor nearby. Photos taken of that image became a powerful symbol of strength and determination amid the grief. If any building should have been opened, if any place should have welcomed those who wished to contemplate or honor what it means to be an American, it was that one. Instead, the closing of the Crown signaled a lack of confidence in ourselves, in our ability to protect the things we hold dear.
Fear kept the Crown closed. But as Barack Obama said in his Inauguration speech, "we have chosen hope over fear."
Open the Crown again, Mr. President. It's the right thing to do.