An aesthetic and historical travesty
Frank Gehry and members of the Memorial Commission view model of Gehry's Eisenhower proposal
Introducing his two-volume biography of the 34th president of the United States, Stephen Ambrose offered a simple, and accurate, judgment: “Dwight Eisenhower was a great and good man. He was one of the outstanding leaders of the Western world of [the 20th] century.”
He also spent more consecutive time at the center of national and international affairs than any other American of his time: longer than either of the Roosevelts, longer than Henry Stimson, longer than anyone. For 18 years — from the moment in November 1942 when he took command of the Allied Expeditionary Force whose invasion of North Africa began the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich, until Jan. 20, 1961, when he handed the burden of the presidency to John F. Kennedy — Dwight David Eisenhower was in the cockpit of history. And it made a great difference that he was there.
He was supreme commander of the greatest political-military coalition in history, holding it together despite great centrifugal forces (both political and personal) until that coalition won what Eisenhower memorably called its “crusade in Europe” and the “Thousand-Year Reich” was no more. He led an Ivy League university; he helped forge NATO into one of the instruments that prevented another totalitarian power from dominating Europe; he helped keep the Republican party from drifting into the irrelevance of isolationism. Despite the criticisms of the nation’s high-cultural and journalistic tastemakers, he was a successful (and crafty) president, one of the few two-term chief executives who left the Oval Office a highly popular man. Americans, now and in the future, ought to know that this country can produce men of such accomplishment.
No one will learn any of this, however, from the Eisenhower Memorial that will soon be built in the heart of monumental Washington: unless, that is, Congress moves quickly to force a reconsideration of a historical and aesthetic travesty.
The present Eisenhower Memorial design, by postmodernist Frank Gehry, has virtually nothing to do with the Dwight David Eisenhower of history. Plans call for Ike to be memorialized in sculpture as a barefoot farmboy on the Great Plains: not the great wartime leader; not the soldier-diplomat; not the chief executive of the United States who presided over eight years of peace and prosperity. The Gehry conceit seems both obvious and entirely in tune with the postmodern deconstruction of history: There are no great men; there are no great virtues; there is no great striving; nor is there great accomplishment or great service to others. No one, visiting the Eisenhower Memorial as designed by Frank Gehry, would have the slightest reason to grasp the truth of the man himself, as Stephen Ambrose once described him:
As a soldier, he was, as George C. Marshall said at the end of the war, everything that the U.S. Army hoped for in its finest products — professionally competent, well versed in the history of war, decisive, well disciplined, courageous, dedicated, and popular with his men, his subordinates, and his superiors. His leadership qualities also included a high degree of intelligence, integrity, commitment to basic principles, dignity, organizational genius, tremendous energy, and diplomatic ability. As a man, he was good-looking, considerate of and concerned about others, loyal to friends and family, given to terrible rages (which he learned to control), ambitious, thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism, stubborn and inflexible about his habits, an avid sportsman and sports fan, modest (but never falsely so), almost embarrassingly unsophisticated in his musical, artistic, and literary tastes, intensely curious about people and places, often refreshingly naïve, fun-loving — in short, a wonderful man to know or be around. Nearly everyone who knew him liked him immensely, many — including some of the most powerful men in the world — to the point of adulation.
None of this is conveyed by the sculpture of a barefoot boy on the plains. None of it is conveyed by the other elements in the Gehry design: 80-foot-tall, nondescript cylindrical posts (they can’t even be properly described as pillars) holding up perforated metal “tapestries,” creating what Gehry himself once called a “theater for cars.” But what does a “theater for cars,” or any other kind of postmodernist knock-off of a Fifties drive-in, have to do with creating a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander who planned the invasion of Normandy, the president who ended the Korean War and who proposed “Open Skies” as a means to lower the temperature of the Cold War?
Nothing. And that, one is forced to conclude, is the idea: Visitors will be asked to admire a barefoot boy, one of many from the Kansas plains, not the unique and historic figure the barefoot boy became. No wonder that Eisenhower’s grandchildren now oppose the design of his memorial.
It is not only history and aesthetics that are travestied in this fiasco. The Gehry design was chosen in a closed competition, which itself suggests that the fix was in for Frank Gehry from the beginning. Having seen his design for a new wing of the Corcoran Gallery of Art go unrealized, Gehry and his acolytes at the General Services Administration now seem determined to get a Gehry into monumental Washington, even if, in the process, they distort history with another postmodernist confection that speaks to no one outside their small, gnostic sect. Yet if the National Capital Planning Commission gives a favorable review to the Gehry design in February, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission may well seek to break ground immediately in order to create a fait accompli.
Congress will have a lot on its plate in the first weeks of 2012. But it should move quickly to stop the current Eisenhower Memorial process and order an inquiry into precisely how and why a design that says nothing about the great achievements of the man being memorialized was approved. And when the answer becomes clear — that this was a closed, opaque process unbefitting a democracy intent on honoring one of those who helped save democracy in an hour of peril — Congress should order the present design scrapped in favor of an open process of design competition and selection, like those that produced the World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorials. Moreover, Congress should ensure that that process is not dominated by those determined to impose a postmodernist architectural vocabulary, irrespective of its distortion of history, on monumental Washington. Meanwhile, Congress would do well to put a hold on the funding for the Eisenhower Commission that was hastily approved as part of an end-of-the-year omnibus spending bill.
The memory of Dwight David Eisenhower deserves better than the travesty that has, to date, steamrollered through the federal bureaucracy. So does the country Eisenhower served so well, and the city where he lived as both soldier and statesman.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and is an adviser to the National Civic Art Society. The Society’s comprehensive critique of the Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial and the closed competition that led to its being chosen is available at www.civicart.org.