Commentary Magazine

Eisenhower and the End of Greatness

Although the superstar architect Frank Gehry was selected three years ago to design the memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington D.C., his quirky schema for a tribute to the 34th president and the supreme commander of allied forces in World War II came to public notice only when David Eisenhower, the subject’s son, resigned late last year from the commission that hired Gehry. Then critics fired off salvos, including an op-ed by George Will, attacking Gehry’s plan. After that, the project was put on hold, at least for the moment.

The crux of the controversy is that Gehry proposes not a memorial object but a “memorial experience.” A two-block section of Maryland Avenue between Fourth and Sixth Streets NW, just south of the National Mall, is to be closed off, forming a public park that will be planted with sycamore trees. Its edges will be marked by a series of 80-foot limestone cylinders (utterly featureless, they cannot be called columns). Between them will hang a tapestry of woven steel, depicting “the Eisenhower home in Abilene, thus bringing a representation of America’s heartland directly into the heart of the nation’s capital.”

Eisenhower famously returned to Abilene after World War II and spoke movingly and humbly of how the town had nourished “the dreams of a barefoot boy.” From that speech comes the central motif of the memorial, a life-size statue of the young Eisenhower “looking out onto his future achievements.” This tousle-headed youth (how odd a choice for America’s most defiantly bald president) will upstage both his future selves, the general and the president—they are relegated to mere bas-reliefs that flank the sculpture. By placing his achievements in the future, the monument excuses itself from spelling out in detail exactly what they were.

But speak out it will. The memorial will be literally talkative, as “sound wells” beneath the sculptures play recordings of Eisenhower’s voice. But Gehry’s garrulous project, like the deliberately distracting patter of a magician, conceals what is not there. It inundates us with many small truths about Eisenhower while refusing to give us any great truth, which is the only reason for building a memorial.

And here Gehry, perhaps inadvertently, has performed a valuable service. He has exposed a painful truth about what one might call “the monument business.” In one sense, that business has been booming, with the National Mall gradually being filled to the brim with gigantic tributes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Korean War veterans, Vietnam War veterans. In city after city, similar public displays have become all the rage.

And there have been controversies about them all, about the tastefulness or lack thereof, about the imposition of anachronistic notions to make the subjects more palatable in the present day, about whether abstract memorials are dehumanizing and whether memorials with representative figures are excessively vulgar.

Gehry’s design, coming in the wake of such disputes, offers an answer to the nagging question of what has been so bothersome about the monument craze and the work generated by it. What is at issue with Gehry’s concept—and with most of the memorials that have preceded it in our time—is the very idea of greatness, of superlative human achievement and distinction. That is precisely what is lacking in Gehry’s “memorial experience.”

Can a public monument be successful without an understanding of greatness?

About Eisenhower’s essential greatness there should be no doubt. Only two figures in world history—Eisenhower and George Washington—achieved the ultimate military feat, the conquest of a continent (aided of course by allies), and then assumed a civilian presidency. Nor should there be any doubt that the successful execution of D-Day was the single most daring military operation of World War II and perhaps of all time. The transportation of 150,000 men (the nine divisions that constitute an entire army) across a body of water in a single day and against furious opposition is the stuff of legend. If this is not greatness, nothing is.

The members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which was formed in 1999, recognized this. Intimately. Its board and advisory council included not only descendants and former aides of the president, but also Congress’s last surviving World War II combat veterans, including Senators Daniel Inouye and Robert Dole, both of whom were grievously injured in Eisenhower’s service. Given the makeup of the commission, one might have looked for a memorial in a neoclassical vein, similar perhaps to the recent World War II Memorial. One would not have predicted such an aggressively unconventional design. But then, one would not have predicted that Gehry’s celebrity as the designer of the most famous building of the past quarter-century—the branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—would have rendered the commission so starstruck.

Gehry handled them with consummate adroitness, which is part of the game. The extent to which success in architecture is based on verbal performance is not sufficiently appreciated. The foundation of architectural education is the “public crit,” where students present their projects and defend them against the hostile questioning of outside critics. The student who runs this gauntlet successfully learns unflappability and how to natter on with confident authority, explaining away verbally what cannot be justified visually. It takes a seasoned critic to notice when the lyrics, so to speak, and the underlying music do not align. A seasoned critic the Eisenhower commission evidently did not have.

Gehry is too intelligent an architect not to recognize that the chief deficiency of his design is that it makes no ardent or emphatic claim about its subject’s greatness. As if in compensation, he worked to insinuate the word greatness into his every statement to the commission, as shown by the minutes of its March 2010 meeting, when he presented his preliminary design for approval. Although he had lived through the 1950s, he told the commission that he “was not aware at the time of the full dimensions of Eisenhower’s greatness”; he lamented “how ignorant many people were in regard to Ike’s greatness while he was still alive”; he assured the commission that the scattered and dispersed elements of his design were to be understood as “emanations from the central idea of Ike’s greatness.”

If the ceaseless incantation of the word betrayed a certain anxiety on Gehry’s part, the commission did not seem to notice. Nor did it notice how nimbly Gehry insisted on the supposedly conservative nature of his design, defending its abstract columns (“homage to the memorial traditions of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials”) and woven metal panels (“tapestries have been used to tell stories through the ages”). Gehry’s design was readily approved. He himself was flattered by the commission’s describing him as “the Frank Lloyd Wright of the modern era.” Anne Eisenhower, a granddaughter, pronounced his project “wonderful.”

It was a rare moment of critical bad luck for Gehry that one of his champions would put into words a strikingly different interpretation of his memorial, and one that had little use for the “central idea of Ike’s greatness.” After a certain amount of quiet murmurings about the design, Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s architecture critic, published a startlingly frank and unbuttoned defense of it on December 15, 2011. Should Gehry’s project falter, as now seems likely, Kennicott will deserve most of the blame—or credit.

Although Gehry had cleverly stressed the affinity of his memorial to Washington’s older monuments, Kennicott was more impressed by the extraordinary radicalism that turned the traditional conception of a classical monument on its head:

Gehry has produced a design that inverts several of the sacred hierarchies of the classical memorial, emphasizing ideas of domesticity and interiority rather than masculine power and external display. He 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.

It was this radical innovation, Kennicott insisted, that had prompted what he mocked as the “murmurings” of conservative critics uneasy with Gehry’s “basic feminization of the memorial language.”

In his zeal to defend the memorial, Kennicott made statements that may have doomed it instead. “Eisenhower was a great man,” Kennicott conceded. “But there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped. To deny that does Eisenhower no honor.” In other words, our particular Eisenhower just happened to be the winning ticket-holder of history’s lottery, to the chagrin of all those other Eisenhowers waiting in line. But luck is not greatness, heroes are not interchangeable, and we do not raise memorials to contest-winners.

Kennicott’s essay—with its praise for the memorial’s diffuseness and ambiguity, its sprawling centerlessness, its resistance to the grand gesture—provided opponents with a lucid manifesto to which they could point and say, This is precisely what we reject.

If one no longer defines greatness in terms of heroic achievement or distinction of character, it is hard to see how one could ever build a monument. A monument must make a single great claim. It can say one thing only: We honor, we remember, we endured, we won, or we grieve. It is this concentrated singleness of expression that makes something monumental. The moment it tries to say many things, it is no longer a monument but a Russian novel. The handful of American monuments that have achieved iconic status are those that convey their meaning in a single urgent gesture: the splendid formal clarity of Jefferson’s domed memorial, the tragic fortitude of Lincoln’s foursquare citadel, the spectacular authority of Washington’s obelisk. The meaning is conveyed at a glance and carries through to the most distant view.

It is remarkable that only one object in the past three generations makes a similarly bold and urgent gesture. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, now 30 years old, has the great merit of succinctness: A long black granite wall, prefaced by a depression in the earth, rises slowly out of the ground to reveal its endless roster of names and then disappears back into the earth. Compared with Gehry’s overwrought performance, Lin’s design offers only a single tragic utterance and then falls silent. To admire her lapidary economy is to ask why is it that the Eisenhower memorial cannot accomplish something similar. Can it be that of all the varied tasks memorials can perform—to honor, to celebrate, to venerate—the only one that we can still pull off with any conviction is to grieve?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial marks a watershed in American public architecture, for it was the first instance in which victimhood trumped greatness as the virtue on which we could establish a broad civic consensus. It is worth recalling how Lin did this. She was studying at the time with the architect F. Andrus Burr, who was an enthusiast for the World War I memorials designed by Edwin Lutyens. Burr showed his students the haunting memorial Lutyens built at Thiepval to the missing of the Somme: a vast cascade of arches upon arches, inscribed with the names of the 72,000 dead whose remains were never found. Noticing that the Vietnam memorial would require a similarly long roster of names, Lin took the Somme monument as her point of departure. Turning it inside out, she made a void where there had been a positive form and moved the names to the retaining wall at the rear.

As a tombstone, the Vietnam memorial is deeply moving. But that is all it is. Death in wartime differs from all other kinds of death because it is purposeful and takes place in the context of collective national endeavor. For this reason, it has always carried connotations of sacrifice, valor, and brotherhood. By making the dominant note of the Vietnam memorial one of  pervasive and overwhelming absence, Lin succeeded in eliminating these connotations. She made a monument that speaks loudly of victimhood and is silent about valor. In her mournful void, there is no intimation that these deaths took place in what was—however poorly led, irresolutely pursued, bitterly opposed, let the qualifications be what they may—a noble undertaking.

The story of how victimhood came to be a dominant cultural value in recent decades has yet to be told, but one can recognize the key factors. In part it came about as the traditional virtues came to be discredited or derided. Simply to recite the ancient “seven virtues”—which, one should recall, include prudence, temperance, and chastity—is to be laughed out of court these days.

Another factor was a collapse of cultural confidence, a faltering in the belief in the intrinsic worth of Western civilization. If one does not see any particular good in Western civilization, it is hard to pay sincere tribute to the men who vanquished its enemies in 1945.

But it is not only by default that victimhood came to loom so large in the modern cultural imagination. It derives ultimately, if by a curiously twisted path, from Christianity, which from the beginning stressed compassion for the suffering through sympathetic identification with the suffering Christ. The idea that suffering might have a sacred dimension is so pervasive in Western culture, and so detached from its religious origins, that one forgets how strange a concept it was to most of the world, to whom suffering was something squalid that deserved at best pity, and more typically scorn. When Jesuit missionaries first arrived in China in the 16th century, for instance, they discovered that the Ecce Homo, the image of the flagellated and bleeding Christ, did not appeal to the Chinese, whose response to a condemned prisoner was unconditional contempt. (The missionaries pragmatically shifted to showing them images of the Holy Family, which were comprehensible in Confucian terms.)

The Western idea of the noble victim acquired political purchase with the success and prestige of the civil rights movement. Since the 1960s, other aggrieved groups have successively modeled themselves on that movement, from feminists and gay-rights activists to advocates for illegal immigrants and the disabled. Such groups have found a certain cultural prestige in victimhood status (and often a convenient immunity from criticism). That otherwise assertive agents on their own behalf should choose deliberately to present themselves as victims is one of the signal phenomena of our times.

Perhaps this is why the only thoroughly sincere memorials to have been built in recent memory are devoted to innocent victims, such as those of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Nothing else has come close, and certainly not in Washington: not the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, with its jittery theatrical tableaux; not the World War II Memorial, with its baffling symbolism of stars, stelae, and pavilions; and not the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, which is the painfully literal realization of an oratorical metaphor.

The Eisenhower Memorial, in its current form, is both too big—the architect Léon Krier points out that the four-acre site could contain two Lincoln Memorials, two Washington Monuments, and two Jefferson Memorials—and too diffuse. Uncomfortable and squeamish about proclaiming greatness of any sort, it distracts with visual anecdotes and in the end offers much to look at but nothing to stir the soul.

Some years ago I wrote in these pages that in stone one builds exclamation points, not question marks. The Eisenhower Memorial, as Gehry envisioned it, is a question mark. Eisenhower himself did not have time for many questions when he was called upon to win the most crucial war in human history and then a few years later to steward the grateful nation he had helped lead to the pinnacle of its own greatness. That is the quality of humankind that a monument exists to evoke. There have been and will ever be millions upon millions of tousle-haired youths in Kansas. There was, in history, but one Ike, limited in the qualities of “domesticity and interiority” so prized by Gehry’s biggest fan and awash in the “masculine power” that gives so many so much pause today. Doubtless that power was somewhat important when it came to summoning up the courage and strength it took to save the world.

About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College. His article, “A Monument to American Ambition,” appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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