Updated: April 23, 2013 2:01PM
I was born in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. Which means I have no living memory of the Ike era. But I feel as if history has imbued me with the general, accepted view of our 34th president.
A lifelong military man who, in that well-worn tradition of lifelong military men, rose steadily through the ranks without actually ever finding himself fighting in a battle, Dwight D. Eisenhower had his great moment of leadership at D-Day — not the smoothest operation, true, but it worked. As president, he oversaw most of the 1950s, coping with McCarthyism, civil rights and the Cold War in a way that was neither brilliant nor especially courageous — more grudging and absentee, his passion was golf. A solid “B” as president.
Which indeed is where history ranks Eisenhower — toward the bottom of the top 20 percent of presidents, never higher than eighth, right behind Woodrow Wilson. I’ve seen polls of historians where James K. Polk is ranked above him.
Thus is came as something of a shock — and I know I’m coming late to the game here, but you can’t keep track of everything — to realize, thanks to Tuesday’s heated congressional hearing, that $142 million is being spent to build an Eisenhower Memorial just off the National Mall in Washington D.C.
I’m acutely aware many of my readers were more than gurgling infants during the Eisenhower years — they were combing back their DAs in soda shop mirrors, or wearing poodle skirts, snapping gum and hopping into the back seats of cars with fins. It was, in their view, not only the greatest years of their lives, but the greatest years of all time. Yet my hunch is, when they read the words “Eisenhower Memorial” they did not think, “Thank God! A great wrong set right.”
Look at the presidents we honor with national monuments in Washington, D.C. Lincoln, our greatest president, perched on his throne in his columned temple. Washington’s distinctive white obelisk, still the tallest thing in Washington. Jefferson — though even by the time you get to Jefferson, and his little-domed rotunda, off to the side, there’s a certain “also-ran” feeling. Franklin D. Roosevelt — who some rank above Jefferson — got his monument late, about 16 years ago.
There is no Harry Truman Memorial — and just to show I’m being bipartisan here, Truman shouldn’t have one; it would be an insult to the kind of man he was and what he stood for. Nor is there a Wilson Monument — indeed, Wilson’s body is interred at Washington National Cathedral, a fact I learned by finding myself standing next to his tomb, which isn’t even behind a velvet rope. You could easily sit on it if you wanted to.
The controversy over the Eisenhower Memorial isn’t centered over whether there should be one — that ship has sailed — but the design. Those in charge picked Frank Gehry, and then were shocked — shocked! — to discover that the man who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion didn’t offer up the standard bronze statue of a hero on horseback atop a plinth, but a four-acre jumble of sand-colored cylinders and blocks and giant photos printed on enormous steel mesh screens, around a statue of Eisenhower, not as president, but as a barefoot Kansas lad.
His family complained that it wasn’t grand enough — the same complaint leveled at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, beloved and widely imitated now, but at first seen as a black gash of shame, at least in the eyes of VFW sorts. One fringe group — something called the National Civic Art Society — even claims Gehry’s design would be “injurious to public morals.” A congressman this week deemed it a “monstrosity.”
Gehry’s design is truly odd, but Eisenhower, though not without merit, isn’t a guy to send white marble straining skyward.
“He has done as much as any man of his limited gifts could do in this era of bad feeling to maintain before the world an image of the United States as being still a nation of free men and free institutions,” Richard Rovere wrote in “The Eisenhower Years.”
“He was the great tortoise upon whose back the world sat for eight years,” Murray Kempton wrote. “We laughed at him, we talked wistfully about moving; and all the while we never knew the cunning beneath the shell.” That about sums him up.
Besides, Eisenhower isn’t being honored so much as the generation who liked him is honoring itself, again. Ten years from now no one would consider this; now we’re stuck.
As officials squabble — the thing was supposed to be built by now — someone should point out that if Eisenhower had a central quality, it was modesty. He would have been aghast at the thought of being enshrined alongside Washington and Lincoln, and doubly aghast at the public argument. But that is Washington — wasting money bickering for years over how to do something that should never have been done in the first place.