In Press: Proceedings article explaining the Olympia (C-6) debacle

by Craig Hooper on July 16, 2010

In America’s constellation of troubled maritime memorials, none are more threatened than the Protected Cruiser Olympia (C-6). This humble ship is, in itself, an American treasure of unmatched historical, technical and symbolic value (In response to Robert Farley’s twitter yesterday, I’d trade an Iowa Class Battleship for the Olympia–in a heartbeat!).

Everybody is eager to save the Olympia. But few are wondering…just how did such a precious artifact fall onto such hard times? Why is it in trouble? Well, I offer, in the July 2010 issue of Proceedings, one answer:

What has been steadily sinking the ship? Not disinterest. Instead, more modern American vices-greed, corruption, and civic disengagement-may have overpowered this monument to the strong, optimistic America of old.

As the Olympia sat deprived of basic maintenance, the Independence Seaport Museum’s chief, John S. Carter, enjoyed perks far above compensation provided at peer institutions. In 2004, his salary exceeded $350,000, and he lived rent-free in a $1.7 million executive mansion bought, maintained, remodeled, and even furnished with museum funds, according to news reports.

The criminal complaint against Carter claimed that by 2006, the museum had been billed more than $335,000 for work on the director’s Massachusetts home. While Carter charged the museum over $280,000 for personal purchases of jewelry, home electronics, designer clothing, and rare artwork, almost $200,000 dollars in maritime artifacts-including a rare print of Dewey-went missing.

Rather than support the Olympia, Carter defrauded the museum of more than $900,000 dollars in a scheme to restore and resell-for personal gain-several antique pleasure boats.

The museum faltered. Between 1999 and 2005, its endowment went from $48 million to a mere $7.7 million. Admission receipts tumbled by half. And all this time, the final arbiters of fiscal management, the museum board, did nothing.

Outside the museum, interested stakeholders did little more. In 2002, after the U.S. Naval Institute’s own Naval History magazine published a devastating article detailing the Olympia’s dire condition, Carter flatly rejected the story in a letter, claiming the account was “somewhat dated and generally uninformed.” This strange rebuttal evoked little response, even though the Olympia‘s decay, well documented by photographs in the magazine, was undeniable.

Carter’s looting of America’s historic treasure continued unabated. Apparently gambling on a federal bailout, the museum director carried on until his house of cards began crumbling in 2005.

In 2007, Carter was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for defrauding the museum of more than $1.5 million over his 17-year tenure.

Museum management was so dysfunctional, I suspect the millions that were supposedly “spent” on the ship were frittered away…or not used on the Olympia in the first place. But that’s just my sense of how things went under the leadership of John S. Carter.

Let me be bunt. The Olympia’s prospects are grim. The slow demise of the Olympia was a very civic failure, and, after this, summoning community enthusiasm to save the vessel will be very, very hard. Also, from the Federal perspective, it is hard to summon the enthusiasm to support a community organization that used a very significant historical artifact as a fiscal hostage (with nary a peep from anybody within the organization).

That’s why you should, right now, head over here to support the new guys. I’ll have more on them later.

To sum up, the Olympia is a microcosm of what is ailing America–greed, corruption and civic disengagement. The prospect that these new American vices might “sink” the proud America of old should bring a tear to even the least sentimental reader present. (And I hate to say it, but the Olympia isn’t the only maritime monument suffering from imperial management troubles….)

I sure wish somebody in the White House would recognize this and act to help save the vessel. It’d be a perfect symbolic moment–a physical “rolling back” America’s civic malaise (in the nick of time, no less!) and ushering in a new era of responsible civic behavior. It’d be met with bipartisan support–if not complete and unfeigned enthusiasm.

Let me put it this way–both FDR and Ronald Reagan would have jumped at the chance to support this project. They’d have recognized the Olympia as a grand opportunity to commit the bully pulpit–and a few buck–for the betterment of the nation. Somebody tell the President to make this happen.

{ 12 comments }

Total July 16, 2010 at 7:27 am

“To sum up, the Olympia is a microcosm of what is ailing America–greed, corruption and civic disengagement. The prospect that these new American vices might “sink” the proud America of old should bring a tear to even the least sentimental reader present”

Oh, brother: stop. I share the outrage over the Olympia, but to act like greed, corruption, and civic disengagement are new in American life is so historically blind that it boggles the mind. We can start with the “robber barons” and come up with sundry other examples. Tea Pot Dome Scandal, anyone?

Chuck Hill July 16, 2010 at 10:09 am

The other icon of the Spanish American War, Battleship Oregon, went to scrap during WWII. I’m surprised Olympia survived our enthusiasm of that period, although putting her steel in a new cruiser, Olympia, might have been a better end.

Craig Hooper July 16, 2010 at 11:08 am

Total–You’re right, of course. One needn’t look any farther than Mark Twain to know that Americans aren’t always perfect. But this time…it feels different.

First, they’re happening in a time when American resources and opportunities are somewhat diminished. The price for moving beyond the societal hiccup of a scandal is becoming tougher to meet.

Second, the scandals of late don’t do anything. Enron didn’t build anything. Carter didn’t do anything–I mean, he just consumed luxuries (buying imported goods and stuff). That’s it. The robber-barons did both. They consumed a great deal (a great deal of which was manufactured right here), but they also built stuff that worked. Even teapot dome would have done something for the economy…

It can’t just be me, but…It feels like the scandals today are more parasitic affairs than previously….my sense is that the cost/benefit equation has changed–the shills and corrupt folks of today are extracting far greater a toll on society than they did previously. And for the first time, we’re having to sacrifice our legacy, historical treasure and way of life to help pay for it…

Charley July 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Perfect use of stimulus funds – on the condition that the ship is moved to Baltimore….

Total July 17, 2010 at 9:04 am

Craig–

Look, I don’t mean to be harsh, but you’re doing exactly what people in every era have done. _Now_, it’s different; _now_ it’s worse. They did that about a second after the Constitution was ratified and have done it every moment since.

“Total–You’re right, of course. One needn’t look any farther than Mark Twain to know that Americans aren’t always perfect. But this time…it feels different.

“First, they’re happening in a time when American resources and opportunities are somewhat diminished. The price for moving beyond the societal hiccup of a scandal is becoming tougher to meet.”

Really? More diminished than the 19th century, when we were not the largest economy or military in the world? More diminished than during the Cold War, when the USSR was still a potent rival?

Our GDP is currently equal to the rest of the top-5 combined, so I’m little skeptical about the “more diminished” idea.

Total July 17, 2010 at 10:02 am

Oh, and as to the “scandals back then produced stuff and so did the robber barons”, I give you Jay Gould and Black Friday (1869): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Friday_(1869)

Craig Hooper July 17, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Fine, I’m a creature of diminutive perspective and trapped by the chains of his short span of life!

So, with your point “made” (though I disagree with you–I think the scope and scale of civic malfeasance is different today), what makes you so fired up about the particular point, then?

Is your ultimate aim to do, well, what? Nothing? Since it’s all already been done?

Forgive me, but I think we can do better. It’s our patriotic duty to, well, at least give it a try.

Total July 18, 2010 at 8:26 am

So, with your point “made” (though I disagree with you–I think the scope and scale of civic malfeasance is different today), what makes you so fired up about the particular point, then?

What would you say to someone who wanted to solve a problem, but misunderstood that problem? You’d correct them, I would hope. Fixing a problem–and I can’t imagine that this is controversial–requires actually knowing what the problem is. You can’t get to four if you don’t know what 2 + 2 is.

The solution to “how do we turn the U.S. back to what it once was” is likely to be fundamentally different from “how do we change a fundamental part of the American character”?

Craig Hooper July 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Oh good lord. I’m not saying “turn back the U.S. to what it once was.” I’m saying that we should try to roll back the tide of corruption and civic disengagement…very different thing.

You seem to be arguing for…um, what? Doing nothing? I mean, if I follow you, you say that, since corruption and civic disengagement are as American as apple pie, we needn’t worry about it…

Or are you just being totally contrarian? :)

Total July 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm

“You seem to be arguing for…um, what? Doing nothing? I mean, if I follow you, you say that, since corruption and civic disengagement are as American as apple pie, we needn’t worry about it…”

Forgive me, as I’m about to be impolite, but I’m truly hoping that the above comment was aberrantly stupid rather than the norm.

I’m saying that you have pointed to a problem that you clearly don’t understand. I had assumed that the idea that understanding the problem was key to fixing it would be an uncontroversial one, but it doesn’t seem to be. So let me start again: there is surely a problem with corruption in American life. It is a long ongoing problem that has been common throughout American history. Understanding that, it seems to me, points us towards different solutions than if we mistakenly believe that this kind of corruption is new and unprecedented.

Anathema July 20, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Total – that’s the norm, though he’s done far worse to others over time.

He’s fun as a “punching bag”, but don’t take him seriously, he’s not worth it.

Howard Serlick July 27, 2011 at 6:47 pm

If anyone truly cares, how about getting behind the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia and donating money and telling friends to join us in preserving OLYMPIA. We are probably one of two serious transfer candidates to date that are going to file an Executive Summary by the 1 September deadline.
There’s a been a lot of talk, but not much action from a lot or well meaning people. What the Friends need is continued financial backing from all levels: corporate, small business, and private individuals.
We have been making headway. We hosted a very successful dinner in the Mansfield room in the US Capitol in late June for 40 major players on the naval, historic, corporate, and legislative areas to build rapport and garner support.

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