New Yorker Mag: “Reboot” the Ike Memorial; “In True Bipartisan Spirit, Almost Everyone Hates It”
Jeffery Frank, author of the new book Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, comments for The New Yorker:
March 25, 2013
Rescuing the Eisenhower Memorial
By Jeffrey Frank
On the anniversary of President Eisenhower’s first Inauguration, he went to Fort McNair, which was nearby, to have lunch with some Army pals. His Cabinet, meanwhile, marked the day by presenting him with a gift—a crystal bowl created by Steuben Glass. The bowl (now known as the Eisenhower Cup) was twelve and a half inches high, and, when you looked closely, you could see eight engravings meant to represent important periods of Eisenhower’s life. . . .
That small, elegant bowl—which managed in the space of a square foot to sum up much of Ike’s life and times—could not be less like the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was designed by the architect Frank Gehry and approved by the fourteen-year-old Eisenhower Memorial Commission. This project would take up much of a four-acre plot across the street from the National Air and Space Museum, which itself sits on the increasingly cluttered National Mall, and would be dominated by four eighty-foot metal “curtains” showing scenes from Eisenhower’s life. In an early iteration, the Kansas “barefoot boy” was to be the central image, a concept about which Susan Eisenhower, an Eisenhower granddaughter, said, “The man we celebrate is not a dreamy boy, but a real man who faced unthinkable choices, took personal responsibility and did his duty—with modesty and humanity.”
The revised design has more man than boy, but the memorial, which so far has cost more than sixty-two million dollars [ed.–of a total estimated cost of $142 million]—a sum that would have appalled the fiscally austere Eisenhower—has still produced little more than acrimony. It has managed to achieve something rare in Washington: in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it. In October, Eisenhower’s only living son, John S. D. Eisenhower, urged a full retreat. Rather than the planned hundred-and-forty-two-million-dollar memorial, he suggested a “green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings,” presumably including his celebrated 1961 warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Susan, John’s daughter, made the same argument before Congress last week.
From the start, something has been a little off with this undertaking, beginning with its preposterous scale. Dwight D. Eisenhower . . . was not someone who showed off. He didn’t swan around with his medals when he was a soldier, and, as President, he was willing to let others take the credit (as well as the blame) for Administration actions. When he left the White House, in 1961, he preferred to be addressed as “General” rather than as “Mister President.”
For the last forty years or so, his White House years have been getting positive reassessments—his nineteen-fifties image as a golf-playing, inattentive, inarticulate leader vanished long ago. Instead, he is likely to be best remembered, and highly regarded, for his temperament—his patience, his judiciousness, and, above all, his clear view of his responsibilities concerning the most important questions of war and peace. Six months after taking office, Eisenhower, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied armies, ended the fighting in Korea—doing so without victory, and without being accused of selling out American interests; he knew that the conflict was unwinnable by any conventional means. In the spring of 1954, he did what he could to insure that there was no American entanglement in the hopeless French war in Indochina. The wartime general presided over a uniquely peaceful Presidency: America was involved in some overseas mischief during his two terms, but no real wars. He was one of those very rare Presidents about whom we can say that, like him or not—flaws and all—we were lucky as hell to have him.
These are not easy qualities to capture in a memorial, but as the design for this one goes back for the complete reboot that it desperately needs, one possible starting place might be the little Steuben bowl that a committee of Cabinet officers—people like John Foster Dulles and George Humphrey!—commissioned sixty years ago. President Eisenhower was grateful, but reportedly asked the gift-givers if the bowl had a cap-and-gown scene to symbolize his years as the president of Columbia University. It did not. Perhaps the new, improved, and vastly scaled-down Eisenhower Memorial might include that, too. [emphasis added]