The Eisenhower Memorial: Another Front in the Culture Wars?
For decades I have worked in the national security and energy security arenas where passions run high, but they are tempered by facts and figures, data and verifiable results. That’s why it has been a new experience—and often a disturbing one— to become an unwitting combatant in America’s Culture Wars, confrontations of emotion, taste and values.
What started as a simple request on the part of the Eisenhower family to delay the approval process and groundbreaking for an Eisenhower Memorial has turned into a fiery debate about modernism versus traditionalism; the gender of memorial language in the 21st century; memorial aesthetics on the National Mall; and controversies around the work of the Memorial’s famous architect, Frank Gehry, and his potential sculptor, Charles Ray.
Gehry’s memorial design proposes to highlight a “barefoot boy from Abilene,” who sits in the shadow of 80-foot woven metal “tapestries” that depict the Kansas landscape. Yet little has been said about the best way to capture Dwight Eisenhower’s contribution to his nation—the very reason he is being memorialized in the first place. In essence, the debate has been about the medium not the message; about the objects rather than the objectives. It seems to me that if we can capture what Dwight Eisenhower has to say to future generations, the way to convey it will be clear.
Some of the reporters and officials who have spoken in the media have masked their own strong feelings about the memorial design and concept by putting words into the mouths of various members of the Eisenhower family. This is not surprising, given the emotions this topic has evoked. However, it is an inaccurate filter through which to understand our family’s simple— and what we hope is constructive— position.
In the context of the nation’s recent experience with the Martin Luther King Memorial, the bottom line is simple: The time is now to get this memorial right. We should not be afraid of delays. The FDR Memorial took three different design competitions before reaching a final plan. And for those who think that a “fast track” is the only road to success, the National Building Museum’s exhibit, “Unbuilt Washington,” underscores that nothing in the built environment is inevitable, as one museum official told the gathering at its opening in 2011.
To communicate directly, in the ensuing months I hope to write an occasional blog to keep readers of this site up-to-date on the position of the Eisenhower family. In the meantime, here are a few fast facts:
- The Eisenhower family is not connected to any of the parties currently fighting the memorial. We have our own independent view, which has been set out in two documents : one from my sister, Anne, our family representative on this issue, and the other a letter from my father, John S.D. Eisenhower. Please also see my recent Q and A, which appeared in the Washingtonian.
- We respect all of the artists involved in the Eisenhower memorial project to date. No, we do not “hate” the design, nor do we pass artistic judgment on any of the artists who have been engaged in this process. Appropriateness, however, is absolutely key to the memorialization of Dwight Eisenhower, just as it would be any other American similarly honored.
- We are concerned that through the federal appropriations process “top dollar” has been spent on a memorial design that lacks originality and doesn’t meet common-sense sustainability demands. The statue of a young “barefoot” Dwight Eisenhower has already been done in his hometown of Abilene, where he grew up (see photo above). The idea of metal tapestries has also already been used by Frank Gehry on parking garages in Santa Monica, California and Miami Beach, Florida.
- We hope to find a constructive way to work with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, though we are concerned and frustrated to read that, according to commission staff, no changes in the design are likely and that the project is still moving at full speed ahead for an early approval.
Let me close in saying that my family encourages all Americans who care about this issue to weigh in with the Eisenhower Memorial Commissioners. Since there is no published list of the Commissioner’s email addresses, it will be easiest to contact the members of Congress who serve on the Commission. Please ask them for a delay in the approval process. If you like, you are also welcome to post a comment here on this website or spread the word to your friends.
This is a case where the old adage “Nothing Good Happens Fast” takes on new meaning and urgency.
To learn more about the controversy surrounding the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, please see Katherine Boyle’s piece “Eisenhower’s granddaughters critical of Gehry’s design” and Philip Kennicott’s piece “Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial reinvigorates the genre,” both recently published in the Washington Post.