During his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower suffered the disdain of American intellectuals who looked down their noses at the war hero. Secure in the adulation of the American public, Eisenhower never took much notice of these detractors. But unless the National Capitol Planning Commission acts to reject the plans already approved by the United States Commission on Fine Arts and the National Parks Service for a new Eisenhower Memorial scheduled to open in 2015, those who would wish to diminish the legacy of the 34th president will have their way.
George Will added his voice to the growing chorus of critics of the proposed design of the memorial on Friday when he rightly noted, “The proposal is an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president.” The simmering controversy was ignited by the decision last month of the Eisenhower family to make public their dismay at a memorial that will portray the architect of the victory over the Nazis as a naive farm boy rather than as a leader of armies and nations. President’s Day is an apt moment to consider why in a city full of grandiose tributes to the past Eisenhower is being treated in this way.
Gehry’s design seems to be a revolt against classical Washington architecture with its most prominent feature being a series of large stainless steel woven tapestries depicting events in Eisenhower’s life being gazed at by a statue of the president as a barefoot boy. The president’s family is aghast at a decision to depict one of the country’s great heroes in this condescending manner. But as Will notes, Phillip Kennicott, the Washington Posts’ cultural critic, provided the key to understanding this wrongheaded choice.
Kennicott praised the design as innovative because Gehry “has “re-gendered” the vocabulary of memorialization, giving it new life and vitality just at the moment when the old, exhausted “masculine” memorial threatened to make the entire project of remembering great people in the public square seem obsolete.” The critic goes on to say the Eisenhower family’s objections are due to Gehry’s “feminization” of the memorial. Kennicott likes the design specifically because it neuters the man it is supposedly commissioned to honor by cutting a “man of action” down to size into a “more contemplative figure” who will be depicted in the “traditionally feminine passivity of reading.”
This goes beyond an effort to transcend a “heroic” depiction of the man. It is also, as Kennicott helpfully points out, an effort to diminish the memorial’s subject and even to highlight his flaws:
Few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings. Although Eisenhower is remembered more fondly now than he was in the 1960s and ’70s, there are still debates about his strategy in the Second World War (was he too cautious, thus prolonging the war?), his role during the McCarthy witch hunts (why didn’t he more publicly confront the congressional Torquemadas?) and his role in foreign adventures (bloody CIA interventions and the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion). The young Eisenhower is both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.
Leaving aside the fact that the Bay of Pigs took place during the Kennedy administration, not that of Eisenhower, this tells us all we need to know about what it wrong about the design and its defenders. While Eisenhower was not perfect as either a general or a president, the same comment can be made of any other great man, including those whose memorials are scattered around Washington. But, unlike the Eisenhower plan, the two most recent additions to the D.C. pantheon — the memorials to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. — were not treated as an invitation for critics or historical revisionists to rethink their subject’s legacies. Nor should they have been. Instead, that disdainful treatment was reserved for the modest Republican who would deserve his country’s highest honors even if he had not been a successful two-term president.
Eisenhower was, after all, not just a flawed politician who made some good decisions and some bad ones, like many other presidents. His place in history is secured as much if not more so by his key role in the great struggle to save Western civilization during World War Two than his presidency. Eisenhower’s talents were exactly what both our republic and the world needed at a moment when everything hung in the balance. If there is anyone who deserves a heroic statue/memorial on the Mall, it is the low-key man who led the Allied armies on D-Day and ended the Nazi reign of terror.
Given the poor treatment Eisenhower is getting from those in charge of this project, his family must be thinking they would have been better off having no memorial at all. The National Capitol Planning Commission should not only scrap Gehry’s ideas but should also re-think the closed process by which the celebrity artist was chosen and open it up to more competition.
The argument that Gehry’s design should be rushed into production so the dwindling band of World War Two veterans will be alive to see it is a poor one. Subsequent generations need to be given an Eisenhower memorial that will depict his achievements and soldierly virtues without reinterpretation via the bizarre intellectual fashions of our day that demand he be “feminized.”