One of the oldest ploys in the strategist’s handbook is to create side skirmishes of little value, except as a way to avoid or delay fully engaging the “enemy” or “adversary” in real battle. This may be why staff members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission have spent little time arguing the merits of the Gehry design. Instead, it seems, they are more interested in igniting mini-battles over non-issues. These side-offensives, however, threaten to turn into circular firing squads.
In a rebuttal to my Q&A with the Washingtonian’s Carol Joynt, Dan Feil, chief architect for the commission, was off-base on a number of important points. If his assertions go un-countered, they could become “facts.”
Much has been made of my brother David Eisenhower’s resignation from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. We are now – out of necessity – going public. This is what happened:
David stepped down after assuming the position of Chairman of the Eisenhower Foundation. Unlike the commission, this organization is chartered to support the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. In David’s resignation letter, he cited a conflict of interest and requested that our sister Anne –who is a professional designer – serve as the Eisenhower family representative on the memorial commission. Since David made his request, we have received no response from the commission expressing their willingness to support Anne’s appointment.
The relevance of David’s former position on the commission has been overstated. John S.D. Eisenhower, our father and Dwight Eisenhower’s heir and executor of his will, is the principal stakeholder in the Eisenhower family. In my father’s recent letter to the family, he clearly states his preferences.
Amazingly, Mr. Feil suggests that the family has “had its say…David Eisenhower was a commissioner. But he quit.” The fact is, my father’s authority stands above his children’s, and the Eisenhower family did not “quit.” We have formally asked to have my sister Anne replace David. Furthermore, we have every bit as much standing to ask questions of a publicly funded commission as other Americans, and just as much right to do so without having our motives questioned.
David has repeatedly told family members that he supported another architect during the selection process for the memorial designer. However, after Gehry was selected by his peers, David sought to be a constructive member of the commission. It is perfectly understandable that David voted for continued development of the memorial on July 12, 2012. I would have, too. David did so in the context of Chairman Rocco Siciliano’s charge to the commission that day. The Commission minutes read:
Chairman Siciliano directed the Commissioners’ attention to the enhanced “greening” of the site plan and the repositioning of the smaller frontal tapestries, noting that some design elements were not yet final. The Chairman explained that in light of the on-going evolution of the design, no approval would be taken as yet. But the Commissioners would be invited to review and possibly endorse the work to date, either individually or collectively.
The Eisenhower family has responded to Chairman Siciliano’s request. We collectively reviewed the design and considered the new concept of the “barefoot boy,” which was a recent change. Along with our research, we provided our list of concerns to the commission staff —privately at first. We only went public after it was clear that they planned to disregard our views and after we gave them a chance to constructively engage in dialogue with us. Subsequently, we had a cordial meeting with Mr. Gehry, but it was to no avail. We do not want to see the evolving, unapproved design on a “fast track” for NCPC approval and a groundbreaking without further, detailed discussions.
David Eisenhower has been a part of family discussions on the memorial since his resignation. In an email dated January 17, he wrote family members that no final vote on the design has been taken. He added: “I am very relieved that the design issues have been reopened…it should be given the objections raised…This was done by the Commission itself in its decision not to approve a formal design last summer.”
In the same email, consistent with his resignation letter, he expressed the importance of passing the baton to Anne because of her expertise and also his new responsibilities at the Foundation. Since Anne is now the point person, and we are in agreement, he will not take press calls.
The parameters of the memorial are still evolving, as Chairman Siciliano told the commission this summer. The Washingtonian article, however, added a new wrinkle.
In the interview, Feil remarkably told Joynt that the woven metal tapestries—“are not the memorial.” He said, “They are the setting for the memorial.”
If this is the case, then the public is now invited to ask itself why the most expensive and unsustainable element of the memorial design is only its backdrop.
This opens the way to discuss the vision I had hoped we would pursue all along. Before the selection of the designer, I was briefed by Dan Feil about Eisenhower Square as a public green. It was already possible for some of us to recognize the power and simplicity of an Eisenhower Square, which could serve as a welcoming space to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building and the Air and Space Museum. In my mind, it also had enough acreage to accommodate two focal points of Eisenhower’s leadership: in war and in peace.
Why not challenge Mr. Gehry to come up with some new ideas that don’t include this non-essential “setting”? Since the tapestries are now apparently “not the memorial,” it seems simple just to eliminate them and concentrate, as Feil says, on the memorial’s core.
Whatever happens next, the one imperative is to reiterate the rules of engagement for everyone involved or interested in the Eisenhower memorial. Whatever idea is advanced must be debated on the merits of the design, its sustainability and the appropriateness of its thematic concept. To engage in mini-battles on tangential issues risks unnecessary rounds of friendly fire. Furthermore, it would engender a public debate unworthy of Dwight Eisenhower, who had a deep and abiding commitment to respectful, fact-based dialogue.