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In December 2018, shortly after I was elected governor, President Trump invited several governors-elect to Washington to talk about our priorities and see where he might be able to help. Knowing the president’s bias for action, I understood that bringing up matters we could tackle right off the bat would increase the chances of getting them done. They would also be far more likely to warrant the president’s personal involvement.
“Mr. President, I need a farm bill and trade agreements done. Our farmers and ranchers need access to new markets to level out the playing ﬁeld to continue to grow our nation’s food supply.” The president nodded.
“I’d also like to have your help with moving some opportunity zones,” I went on. More nodding.
“And lastly, Mr. President,” I said, “I’d like your help getting ﬁreworks back to Mount Rushmore.” He immediately perked up. “Fireworks? What do you mean?”
I told him that South Dakota had a long tradition of a ﬁreworks celebration on top of Mount Rushmore every Fourth of July eve. But for ten years, I explained, the display had been canceled — ever since the Obama administration had barred them, claiming that the ﬁreworks might trigger “environmental concerns.”
“Mr. President, this is South Dakota’s one opportunity to really become the focus of the nation for one night each year.” Bringing ﬁreworks back to Mount Rushmore would be an incredible tribute to freedom in our country — a western sky lit with red, white, and blue ﬁreworks illuminating some of our nation’s greatest leaders. Beyond that, tourism is South Dakota’s second-largest industry. Marketing our state on national television on America’s birthday had always been incredibly beneﬁcial for us.
It made sense to President Trump. And from that moment on, he was ﬁxated on getting us our ﬁreworks back.
My team and I worked diligently with the Department of Interior and the White House for almost two years straight on logistics and planning. Every time I saw President Trump in that time, without fail, he would ask, “Kristi, how are we coming along on our ﬁreworks?”
“We are working it, Mr. President,” I assured him.
The truth was that bureaucrats within his own administration were trying to stop it. For starters, the National Park Service (NPS) did not want to facilitate the event. NPS staff brought up ﬁre concerns, water-quality concerns, cultural concerns, and, once the pandemic hit, health concerns. At one point, a staffer even asked, “How could this event offend people on Twitter?”
I kid you not.
My ofﬁce made repeated requests to meet with Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to get an agreement signed, permits obtained, and the planning process underway. When Secretary Bernhardt was slated to speak at the Western Governors Association in Vail, Colorado, in June 2019, I ﬁnally had an opportunity to speak with him directly.
It was months after my June meeting with Secretary Bernhardt before we heard anything from the federal government. Stop and think about that for a minute. The president of the United States — the “leader of the free world” — was in favor of returning ﬁreworks to Mount Rushmore. The secretary of interior — who was appointed by the president — was in favor of returning ﬁreworks to Mount Rushmore. And — not for nothing — the governor of the state in which Mount Rushmore exists was in favor of returning ﬁreworks to Mount Rushmore.
And yet, it was nearly impossible to get this event through a massive, unelected federal bureaucracy that didn’t want it.
It is never just a simple yes with the federal government. Everything is always draped in miles and miles of red tape. For us to have ﬁreworks at Mount Rushmore, the federal government insisted on elaborate requirements. It was absurd.
Environmental studies needed to be con-ducted. Federal permits needed to be obtained. Extensive back-burning had to occur on all the surrounding Forest Service land. We needed numerous sign-offs and agreements between all the key players. And then — because President Trump had expressed interest in showing up — all those agencies had to reach agreements with the United States Secret Service. After all, there might be protests. Then came the engineers who had to determine exactly where we would set up the ﬁreworks display.
Over the course of this planning period, three different people came into the position of superintendent of Mount Rushmore. Each new person brought new concerns and a fresh face to make us worry about the viability of the event.
Worst of all was the organized, nationwide campaign in the spring and summer of 2020 to rip down references to our nation’s founding and other points in history. From coast to coast, this was a movement that intentionally focused exclusively on our forefathers’ ﬂaws, and that purposefully ignored their virtues. I believed then and believe now that this was done deliberately to discredit America’s principles to remake our country into a different political image. The attempt to “cancel” the founding generation was an attempt to cancel our freedoms.
One day, early in the summer of 2020, as the whole nation convulsed with ﬁghts over identity politics and extreme levels of political correctness, I came across a segment on cable news that remains one of the most mind-boggling displays of ignorance I’ve ever seen on television — and that’s saying something.
Standing in the Black Hills, with the iconic chiseled images of four US presidents behind her, CNN correspondent Leyla Santiago described the impending visit of the president of the United States to one of America’s most popular tourist attractions this way:
“President Trump will be at Mount Rushmore, where he’ll be standing in front of a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans. I’m told that… he’ll be focusing on the effort to ‘tear down our country’s history.'”
It’s worth noting that if it were not for the four men carved into the stone behind her, Leyla would be living a very different life in a very different country. The very rights she mindlessly enjoys today — such as getting to say whatever careless thing she wants — would not exist if not for the men who set the foundation for freedom as we know it. What’s more, President Obama had visited Rushmore only a few years before — without any such criticism from the media. It was just more hypocrisy and total loss of objectivity from the media.
The reporter had no idea that she was proving the point about the need to protect our treasured history from ignorant vandals. She was standing there on national television attacking our history to smear Republicans and patriotic Americans as racist, uncaring, and generally supportive of slavery and genocide.
Her report was more than just an attack on the Founders, it was an assault on every American who cherishes our history. Sitting there watching her babble on, I could not help but take it personally. This was, after all, my home state. And, as South Dakota’s governor, preserving this revered national landmark was part of my responsibility. If the Left wants to come after Mount Rushmore, they’re going to have to go through me.
We decided to offer 7,500 tickets to the public — to be distributed via a lottery system. More than 125,000 people signed up in three days.
On July 3, 2020, President Trump and his family arrived at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just east of Rapid City. I welcomed the president and First Lady on the runway at Ellsworth. From there we would ride on Marine One to Mount Rushmore and land at the park’s helipad.
For all the times I have gazed at the faces of Mount Rush-more, I have never seen them quite like I did that day from the inside of Marine One. The skill of the Marine pilots was incredible; they got us close. I remember being eye-to-eye with the spectacles of our nation’s twenty-sixth president — the conservationist, naturalist, historian, and “Rough Rider” Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy would have loved this, I thought.
Adding to the drama, the production team was playing the radio communications of the helicopter pilots over the loudspeakers so the crowd could hear their commands and approach. As we ﬂew past, the crowd below began cheering. Looking down, I saw people dancing.
People needed this, I realized. We all did. After months of a global pandemic, this was the ﬁrst time for so many that they had done anything that felt normal — human. We were Americans, together again.
My mother was in the audience that day. Later, she told me that looking around the crowd, she saw tears streaming down the faces of the people around her. No masks. No fear. Just profound gratitude for the gift of living in this country.
The ﬁreworks that night were something out of this world. The sound echoed off the Black Hills like endless rolls of thunder. In the ﬂashes of their dazzling light, I could see thousands of people, from all across America, watching in wonder.
This was a deﬁant celebration of life — the life of a nation, born from desperate beginnings — and a celebration of the lives of everyone continuing that story now despite a global pandemic — those gathered in the canyon below and those all across the country.
Further, in the months leading up to the Fourth of July, the country had seen so many angry people tearing down monuments from our past, believing they could only be sources of pain and division. Here at Mount Rushmore, we had the opposite. The isolation and fear of the pandemic had been heavy on us all. Here, for the ﬁrst time in so long, people had come together. We want to be united as much as we want to be free, I remember thinking to myself.
In that moment, I knew in my heart: our country will survive.
Whatever comes, whatever trials from within or without, we can rest assured that the human heart never stops yearning for true freedom, and it never stops yearning for true community. That freedom is not a license to act on whatever whim, but the ability to serve, honor, and love the good things, the true things, the beautiful things. And that community is not something that can be forced on us by ofﬁcial authority, but something that must be freely chosen. Something given.
Human nature then was on our side, just as our Founders believed it was on theirs when they set up this country so long ago. That alone won’t be enough to see us through, to ﬁx those things still broken about us. That will be our job. But we’re up for it.
We’re Americans, after all, and we don’t complain about things. We ﬁx them.
Excerpted from Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland ©2022 Kristi Noem and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.