By MARSHA MERCER
On Veterans Day 1954, President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower and his family -- brothers, wife, son and grandchildren -- gathered in Abilene, Kan., for the dedication of the Eisenhower boyhood home and museum.
Ike emphasized that the museum would focus on promoting good citizenship. Nothing else, he stressed, “could ever have induced the Eisenhower brothers to attach their name to something which inescapably would have certain elements, let us say, of self-glorification, except that this project was presented as something for the future good of America.“
Speaking with “humble pride” for the six generations of his family buried nearby and for generations yet to come, he said, “I am privileged to dedicate this shrine to the future citizens of a great and glorious America.”
His remarks are relevant because they provide a sense of how the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II and the two-term president, from 1953 to 1961, would want to be remembered. And that’s a matter of great 21st century debate.
Time and again over the years, Eisenhower chose to downplay his own personal triumphs, which were many, and to celebrate instead the shared effort of the nation and its future good. He had no use for “talking Generals” or for the cult of personality that most politicians cultivate.
Ike’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, who was 2 years old that November day in Abilene, now leads the family fight against the proposed design of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington.
In 1999, three decades after Eisenhower’s death, Congress authorized construction of a permanent national monument equal in caliber to the Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR presidential memorials. Like those, though, the execution of the Eisenhower memorial has been fraught with disputes and delays.
Competing visions of how to commemorate Ike have pit world-class architect Frank Gehry against the Eisenhower family and an array of traditionalists. The Interior secretary has told the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to keep working on the design, and a House appropriations subcommittee last month pulled the plug on nearly $60 million in funding for construction of the memorial starting in fiscal 2013.
The memorial is to be located on four acres adjacent to the Education Department and other federal office buildings at the foot of Capitol Hill, off the National Mall. To partly shield the view of office buildings and create a square, Gehry envisions stainless steel mesh screens eight stories high.
The Toronto-born Gehry, 83, a star architect with a portfolio of internationally acclaimed structures, is known for his use of unconventional materials. He wrapped his own California home in corrugated metal and chain-link fences, infuriating the neighbors but winning a big architectural award.
His Eisenhower design, which beat out other contenders in a national competition, is Gehry’s first memorial and will be his first project in Washington.
Susan Eisenhower, testifying before a congressional panel in March, denounced the screens – Gehry calls them tapestries – for evoking memories of the Iron Curtain or chain-link fences around concentration camps. And she predicted practical difficulties.
“It is easy to imagine that 80-foot metal mesh curtains would require constant maintenance. Any high wind would assure that everything from leaves to trash could easily get caught in the metal gaps. It is hard to imagine that the National Park Service would be equipped to handle the constant cleaning, especially at the higher reaches,” she said. She and other critics also objected to the depiction of Eisenhower as only a barefoot boy in Kansas, dreaming of his future.
When it comes to choosing how we remember America and Americans past, conflict is more the rule than the exception.
The Washington Monument -- plagued by political battles, lack of money and the Civil War -- was under construction, off and on, for 36 years. Critics worried that the Jefferson Memorial’s Parthenon design would compete with the Lincoln Memorial. The FDR Memorial was built after nearly half a century of debate.
Gehry produced a design revision in May that keeps the young Ike and the screens but adds sculptures of Eisenhower later in life, along with limestone blocks with quotations.
Better but not enough change, the family and other critics said. They want a simpler, scaled back, less expensive memorial that reflects the values Eisenhower held dear.
They’re right. Drop the gigantic, ultra-modern screens and let the memorial honor Ike and the future good of America.
©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.