By MARSHA MERCER
At home on their farm in Pennsylvania, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower and his wife Mamie, like millions of other Americans in the 1960s, ate their supper on TV trays, watching Walter Cronkite.
Ike painted in oils, practiced his golf swing and read. Mamie devotedly watched soap operas.
With nearly all the original furnishings still in place, their home tells us that the Eisenhowers had modest tastes and traditional values. There are many framed family photos and knickknacks Mamie collected. But there’s no glory wall of pictures of Ike with kings and potentates, no medals, no political paraphernalia.
Ike was a five-star general, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II and a two-term president from 1953 to 1961, but he hated self-glorification and showing off.
The Eisenhowers donated their farm adjacent to the Gettysburg Battlefield to the National Park Service, which opened it to the public in 1980 as the Eisenhower National Historic Site, a fitting memorial to the 34th president.
It should be obvious that a memorial to Eisenhower in the nation’s capital should also reflect his values, but nothing is simple in Washington.
Congress approved a memorial in 1999, three decades after Ike’s death, and about $65 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent so far on a design, Eisenhower Memorial Commission staff and K Street offices, and other costs. The total pricetag is $142 million.
The first spade of dirt has still not been turned – fortunately. That means there’s still time to get the memorial right.
On the 125th anniversary of Ike’s birth – he was born Oct. 14, 1890 – Congress should stand with critics, including the Eisenhower family, who find the memorial designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry too grandiose and expensive.
“I think what the critics want is a memorial that’s reflective of Ike’s humility and modesty – and that is not Frank Gehry’s four-acre behemoth,” Bruce Cole, an art historian and a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission appointed by President Obama, said in an interview.
“I would like to see a fitting and proper memorial,” Cole said.
I agree, especially after visiting the Eisenhower Farm a few days ago.
Gehry’s latest design has a seven-story stainless steel screen or “tapestry” as a backdrop to two sets of bronze sculptures in front of huge stone blocks, topped by quotations. The location is an urban park adjacent to the Education Department and other federal office buildings at the foot of Capitol Hill, off the National Mall.
Because of the design controversy, Congress has not approved construction money for the memorial since 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee, citing “significant unresolved issues,” approved just $1 million for the project for the next fiscal year, the same as last year. The House Appropriations Committee zeroed out all funding and urged a “reset,” a new design that meets the approval of the Eisenhower family.
Ike’s son John S. D. Eisenhower asked in 2012 that the commission scrap the Gehry design and build instead on Eisenhower Square, “a green, open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations.” He died in 2013, and Ike’s grandchildren have been lobbying Congress for a more respectful memorial.
Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, 92, who was wounded in World War II, said last month that he will raise $150 million in private funds to build the memorial.
“This is not being built for the grandchildren,” Dole told The New York Times. “The voice that hasn’t been listened to is us guys for whom Ike was our hero, and we’d like to be around for the dedication.”
Only about one million World War II vets are still with us and fewer Americans every year remember Ike. Last year, 58,240 people visited the Eisenhower Farm, down from 182,387 visitors in 1981.
Dole raised $170 million for the World War II Memorial, but Eisenhower Commission member Cole predicts that “it’s going to be extremely difficult to raise money for the Gehry design, which has been so controversial and toxic since it was unveiled.”
The Eisenhower Memorial should be appropriate for Ike, restrained and dignified. It’s time for a reset.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.