Conservative Congressmen win the right to take a plane from JFK to Ronnie

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton will today sign an order renaming the capital's Washington National Airport after Ronald Reagan, his predecessor-but-one in the White House. The tribute was approved by both Houses of Congress earlier this week, ending a spirited and at times acrimonious debate that spilled over into newspaper columns and radio talkshows.

The congressional votes were rushed through so that the renaming would coincide with Mr Reagan's 87th birthday. The former president suffers from Alzheimer's disease and may not even appreciate the honour.

Mr Reagan joins the late President John F Kennedy and George Bush in having an airport named after him, but in his case there is a special irony. One of Mr Reagan's early acts as president was to sack more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who had refused an order to end their strike. Controllers at what has hitherto been known as Washington National Airport say they will refuse to call the airport by its new name in protest.

Democratic Congressmen are also baulking at using the new name, but their Republican opponents say that fair's fair. They have long had to swallow hard before booking tickets to JFK whenever they travelled from Washington to New York. Now, Democrats will have a taste of their own medicine.

National Airport is the smaller and older of Washington's two airports and mostly receives domestic flights. It is favoured by travellers because it is close to the city centre, and the terminal building was recently given a sparkling new glass extension.

Opposition to the renaming of the airport came not just from Democrats, but from a vocal coalition of people who felt that renaming buildings after politicians has gone too far, that changing all the signs will be expensive, or that Mr Reagan's name was already sufficiently commemorated. As well as an emergency medical centre, there is a Ronald Reagan federal building under construction that will house government officials. The paradox of associating that building - an embodiment of big government which has overrun its completion date and budget - with a government-cutting president has been much remarked upon.

The most compelling argument brought by dissenters was that the Washington airport was already named after an individual - the first US President, George Washington. "Who was Washington then? Bugs Bunny?" was one of the more memorable lines from the Senate debate.

There followed a complex grammatical and semantic argument about whether the Washington of National airport referred to the city or the person.

For advocates of the change, the renaming reflects an affection and respect for the former president on the American right that continues to grow a decade after he left office. Mr Clinton, who shares with his predecessor the sure popular touch for which Mr Reagan is remembered, is expected to allude to that today.

- Mary Dejevsky,

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