By Justin Shubow As the war over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial comes closer to a bitter end, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is bringing in the big guns — desperately. Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole has begun stumping for the design, and the commission added Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," to its advisory board. The commission has also recently stockpiled conservative ammo by adding to that board Washington Times Opinion Editor David Keene (former chairman of the NRA and American Conservative Union), along with ACU President Matt Schlapp and Republican and former CFTC Commissioner Jill Sommers.
There is a theme here: Kansas. Schlapp is a native of the state, and Sommers began her career by working for Dole. What’s the matter with Kansas? Lo and behold the sole member of Congress pushing hard for the design is GOP Sen. Pat Roberts — of Kansas — who is chairman of the Eisenhower Commission. The memorial has become his inside-the-Beltway $150-million pet project.
The sole talking point for Roberts and Dole is that we must complete the memorial in time for the remaining World War II veterans to see it. What the two of them pointedly never do is discuss the design — for good reason. Deconstructionist in style and grandiose in scope, the four-acre memorial features Soviet-scaled 80 foot pillars and a 447 foot steel tapestry (i.e., an “Iron Curtain”) of what is alleged to be the Kansas landscape. In reality, the bleak imagery might as well be Kazakhstan.
At the design’s core is a kitschy life-size statue of Eisenhower as a lanky teenage boy dreaming about his future. The memorial trivializes and minimizes a great man. He looks like an ingénue about to break out into song. To his left and right are groups of statues representing Ike as president and Supreme Allied Commander. The cartoonish assemblages look like an eighth grader’s diorama.
The Eisenhower family and the public refuse to support the design. Conservatives and Republicans have been particularly vocal in criticizing the design — hence the need for Dole’s help and the new additions to the Eisenhower Commission’s advisory board.
As for where congressional Republicans stand, in scathing terms the 2016 house budget zeroes all funding for the memorial, and explicitly demands a “reset” for the design. It even calls for firing the commission’s staff, which it accuses of ultra vires spending. In the Senate, pointing to the lack of support from the public and the Eisenhower family, appropriators also denied any construction funding, and allotted just $1 million for commission operations. This is minuscule compared to the $70 million the commission requested.
No matter. The Washington Post reported that the Eisenhower Commission is going to try to stick $24 million into the 2016 budget, as well as obtain a waiver from the statutory requirement that the memorial be fully funded before construction can begin. If the latter stratagem succeeds, the memorial could essentially break ground tomorrow — even though it would need at least $70 million more for completion. If such groundbreaking occurs, there is the very real danger that the memorial will run out of money while under construction (which would obviously prevent WWII veterans from ever seeing it). This is precisely what happened to the Washington Monument, which remained only one-third built for decades. It was a national embarrassment.
Veterans surely do not want Congress to ram through an atrocious design that will permanently stain the National Mall. Veterans want a worthy memorial to inspire all future Americans, not any particular group. You wouldn’t know it from Dole’s rhetoric, but the Greatest Generation is not the Me Generation.
Roberts, Dole, and the recent additions to the Eisenhower Commission are well-intentioned, but they know not what they do. Members of Congress must stick to their howitzers and pulverize Gehry’s plan.
Justin Shubow is president of the National Civic Art Society. He testified in defense of a House bill to reboot the Eisenhower Memorial with a new competition.
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