Ashley: James Polk and our budget dilemma

Mar. 30, 2013 @ 11:37 AM

North Carolina’s budget woes have come to this: We’re closing the James K. Polk Birthplace historic site.

That is a small thing, a minor blow compared to decisions in Raleigh that are blocking Medicaid expansion to half a million Tar Heels and further eroding our university system.

But it seems symptomatic of the breadth of the impact of the cost-cutting crusade that Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature – to be fair, with the apparent endorsement of a majority of the state’s voters – are on these days.

The Polk birthplace -- like the one-term president who was born there – lags in the popular imagination. Only 15,537 visitors dropped in on the site last year, The Charlotte Observer noted in a lengthy article on the closing last week. By contrast, the newspaper reported “tourist-rich Wilmington's Fort Fisher, the state's most popular historic site…drew nearly 440,000 visitors last year.”

Somewhere deep in a closet drawer, I think I still have a very faded picture of the Polk birthplace on a very worn and tattered T-shirt. It’s a reminder of the first 10-kilometer race I ran as I joined millions of others in the running boom of the mid-1970s. The James K. Polk 10K, it started and finished, of course, at the historic site.

A few months later, running in my first marathon and wearing that T-shirt, I heard a stranger among the spectators at about the 23-mile mark shout, “Go, James K. Polk.” It helped. So for perfectly superficial reasons, the 11th president and his birthplace have always stood out a bit for me.

Polk has enjoyed something of a renaissance among historians lately. Although he’s grouped in the public mind with a series of rather hapless and often ineffective one-term presidents who struggled through the slavery crisis and the walk-up to the Civil War, he actually accomplished quite a bit.

He successfully championed western expansion. Notes the jameskpolk.com website:

“Tense negotiations with Great Britain concluded with American annexation of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel. Following a controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. During Polk's term of office, the United States acquired over 800,000 square miles of western territory and extended its boundary to the Pacific Ocean.”

Polk also started the Naval Academy, the Washington Monument, issued the first postage stamp, lowered tariffs (a campaign pledge) and created an independent federal treasury.

And then, unlike many a modern-day politician who favors term limits until he or she is in office, he kept another campaign promise to step down after a single term. (Just as well – he died of cholera shortly after leaving office.)

The Polk birthplace site is hardly a budget-buster. The site gets $110,139 a year from the state. Closing it and three other lightly visited sites will save just under $1 million over two years.

Of course, the challenge of budget cutting is, as a Kentucky politician once observed to me, every program has a constituency. The James K. Polk Support Group promises a fight.

“We have a home of a president,” the group’s president, Sharon Van Kuren, told The Observer. “Not everybody can say that. We've already lost so much of Charlotte's history and we don't need to lose anymore.

“That will be our battle cry."

It’s hard to rally to that battle cry if the alternative is lopping two or three more teacher asistants off the Durham Public Schools payroll, for example.

But it seems a shame we’re at the brink of closing the doors – if only temporarily - on a small but deeply significant piece of our state’s heritage.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.