The dispute in Australia in which President Trump’s name was invoked is this: On October 9, a six-minute light projection used the “sails” (or “shells”) of the Sydney Opera House to promote “The Everest,” a horse race. The sponsoring entity was Racing NSW, the body that governs horse racing in New South Wales. It was the Sports Minister of the New South Wales government who encouraged the advertising, with the permission of the Premier of New South Wales, contrary to the previous government policy of forbidding third parties from using the structure to advertise. J. Saulwick, et al., “‘He’s a Can-Do Man’: The Minister Who Devised Opera House Plan,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 9, 2018,
Over 300,000 petitioners and over 1,000 protesters objected to the Sydney Opera House, the icon of Australia (think of Big Ben in London), and a World Heritage site, being used for commercial purposes. In that maelstrom, Ben Oquist, the executive director at the Australia Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Even Donald Trump wouldn’t get away with putting advertising onto the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s akin to that.” Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, “Horse Racing Ad Briefly Runs on a World Landmark, to Swift Backlash,” N.Y. Times, Oct. 12, 2018, p. A7.
It would seem that Oquist has a bad opinion of President Trump. At the same time, however, he praises the President since he declares that President Trump would not do something so baldly wrong, in Oquist’s view, as using the Lincoln Memorial for an advertisement.
Now, Oquist is not criticizing the use of the Sydney Opera House altogether. Just as the Eiffel Tower and our Statue of Liberty conduct light shows, the Web has still pictures and videoclips of light shows projected on the Opera House. Above is an example, from 2016, of light projections that complied with “guidelines that forbid slogans, corporate identities, or text on its sails ‘unless for a specific artistic purpose in relation to Sydney Opera House.’” Annette Lin, “Is Sydney’s Opera House a Billboard?, CityLab, Oct. 12, 2018.
What about a president who used the White House (or Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, etc.) for purposes unrelated to government. We have two recent presidents, both of them Democrats, who did just that. In Oquist’s estimation of President Trump, Trump is a shining light by comparison.
Then President Obama used rainbow colors on the White House to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, purple after the death of the pop star Prince, and pink for breast cancer awareness. I’m okay with commemorating a recently deceased person; it’s akin to lowering flags. And I’m okay with publicizing breast cancer awareness; it’s like motherhood and apple pie. The same is true when President Trump bathed the White House in blue in May, 2017, for Peace Officers Memorial Day, seen below.
But the celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage was wrong because it was divisive. Obama knew of the very large percentage of Americans who opposed, and continue to oppose, a requirement to recognize marriage among persons of the same sex. Celebrating it, by putting rainbow colors on a principal building of the U.S. government owned by the American taxpayers as a whole, was in your face.
Turning to the example of then-President Clinton: He awarded political donors with overnight stays in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom. The room had been used as an office by President Lincoln. See White House Museum, “Lincoln Bedroom."
Abraham Lincoln in his office, circa 1863
White House Museum
As the late Senator John McCain said at the time, "[Documents] corroborate what we already suspected and what circumstantially was already known to us, and that is, that the president of the United States, in seeking to raise money for his re-election, was willing to use the Lincoln Bedroom, probably one of the more sacrosanct places in America, in order to gain those financial funds which he felt were necessary.” “Clinton Ok'd Using Lincoln Bedroom for Contributors,” CNN, Feb. 25, 1997.
President Bill Clinton's guests in the Lincoln Bedroom gave a total of at least $5.4 million to the Democratic National Committee during 1995 and 1996, according to a study for CNN by the Campaign Study Group…The CNN study found 24 overnight White House guests who gave $100,000 or more to the DNC. CNN's $5.4 million figure does not include money given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or any state party committees…[T]he Clinton White House released the names of 800-plus people who stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom…”
“Lincoln Bedroom Guests Gave $5.4 Million,” Feb. 26, 1997.
Two of the Lincoln Bedroom's Renters, Linda Thomason and actress Markie Post, Jumping on the Bed
Hillary Clinton continued the “tradition” of her husband. As Senate candidate in 2000, Hillary Clinton used the Lincoln Bedroom for donors. M. Asif Ismael, “Fat Cat Hotel Still Open for Business,” Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 22, 2002. And donors who had used the Lincoln Bedroom during her husband’s tenure contributed to her 2016 presidential campaign. Liz Essley Whyte, “The Lincoln Bedroom Is Still Paying Dividends,” Slate, Oct. 26, 2015,
Spero News columnist James Thunder is an attorney who practices in Washington DC.