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]

One Response to “New Yorker Mag: “Reboot” the Ike Memorial; “In True Bipartisan Spirit, Almost Everyone Hates It””
  1. Michael Strutt says:

    I agree completely with this website’s contention that the proposed memorial to General and President Eisenhower is much too large and boisterous with imagery. Seventy-two foot high columns are much too large, not only for Mr. Eisenhower’s memorial, but for anything to be placed on open space along the increasingly crowded National Mall. The location is at the foot of the Capitol Building. What about the Capitol view corridor? I am surprised and appalled that the Section 106 review process for a construction of this magnitude on federal property approved the design. The National Park Service and Advisory Council agreed that the plan will have an adverse impact on L’Enfant’s design for the city, yet this is still being considered?? We have made many poor decisions related to the L’Enfant plan and this is another. It is a death by 1000 cuts to one of the most coherent city plans in the world.
    Many individuals have stated the belief that a fitting tribute to our 34th president must fit with Mr. Eisenhower’s personality. Apparently his entire family is opposed to the current plans. What was in the call for competition that yielded such a purposely over-the-top design?
    As a taxpayer I am furious at the unconscionable expense already poured down the drain on just design. The website mentions a figure of $62 million – even half that is preposterous! If that is true those bureaucrats in charge of this financial fiasco should be removed immediately (from office and their jobs). What America needs and wants to honor one of our greatest leaders (not just of the 20th century) is a memorial that depicts his character and the immensity of his accomplishments in a refined manner befitting his personality. The current plan is nothing short of ridiculous. I agree – reboot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  • About

    This website is the product of the National Civic Art Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the traditional humanistic practice of architecture, urban design, and the fine arts.