By MARSHA MERCER
While controversy rages about how to memorialize Dwight D. Eisenhower, bells chime on Capitol Hill in a lasting, impressive memorial to Robert A. Taft, a man few Americans probably remember.
That’s not a knock on Taft. The Republican from Ohio served in the Senate from 1939 until his death in 1953. He is honored a block north and west of the U.S. Capitol on Constitution Avenue with a 10-foot bronze statue and a simple, 100-foot marble carillon. You can hear the beautiful bells chime on Capitol Hill on the hour and quarter hours.
But it is a sign of our peculiarly dysfunctional Washington that Ike – the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, the man who ended Taft’s presidential ambitions in the 1952 GOP primaries and served two terms as president -- has been “memorialized” so far by costly bickering and ego wars.
In the case of Taft, who was Senate majority leader, Congress authorized the memorial in 1955, and public subscriptions from around the country totaling more than a million dollars paid for it.
President Eisenhower dedicated the memorial in 1959, six years after Taft’s death, and former President Herbert Hoover said, "When these great bells ring out, it will be a summons to integrity and courage."
In the case of Eisenhower, who died in 1968, Congress authorized a memorial in 1999 and a commission to study the “nature, design, construction and location” of the memorial. The commission has a full-time executive staff of nine, six part-time or contract workers and offices on K Street.
Taxpayers have spent $41 million, but after 14 years, there is no memorial, no acceptable design, not even a date for a ground-breaking ceremony, according to a scathing July 25 report by the majority (Republican) staff of the House Natural Resources Committee that called the memorial a “five-star folly.”
And the meter is running. Even before the commission picked a site or a design, its staff estimated that the memorial would cost $100 million and take up to six years to design and construct.
The commission chose world-famous architect Frank Gehry and a four-acre site on Independence Avenue SW, across from the Air and Space Museum and adjacent to the Education Department.
Gehry’s firm has received $11 million in fees and is due an additional $3.3 million, the report said, but it has yet to deliver a design that meets the approval of the Eisenhower family or requirements of the Commemorative Works Act, a 1986 law that sets standards for memorials, or various commissions.
The family wants a memorial that’s “simple, sustainable and affordable,” Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, told Congress in 2013.
The most contentious design elements are 80-foot tall columns with huge stainless steel tapestries that would be woven and welded to show landscapes of Kansas, where Ike spent his boyhood. The Eisenhower family and others worry that about durability and the potential for snow, ice and trash to be caught in the scrim.
The group Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial, says it’s time for Gehry to step aside and for the process to start over. The congressional staff oversight report made no recommendations, and the committee has not taken a vote.
Congress has pulled the plug on construction appropriations and is funding only commission salary and expenses, about $2 million in 2013 and $1 million this year. A bill in Congress would dissolve the commission and appoint new members.
In response to the report, memorial commission chairman Rocco Siciliano likened the current controversy to the uproar over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial more than 30 years ago. Many vets disliked Maya Lin’s design and insisted on construction of a separate statue with flag nearby, ‘’yet it is now the most visited memorial in Washington,” he said. The earlier controversy is largely forgotten.
“It is unfortunate that history appears to be repeating itself with the Natural Resources Committee staff unfairly and inaccurately attacking Frank Gehry, the commissioners and staff,” Siciliano said.
Gehry, in a statement to The New York Times, said he has worked on the design pro bono and regrets seeing the project “engulfed by the political process.”
Another historical note: Robert Taft’s father, William Howard Taft, was the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His family paid for the 14-foot memorial there.
It may be time for the Eisenhower family to take over planning and fund-raising for a memorial that is indeed “simple, sustainable and affordable.” Ike deserves better than this.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.