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Can Eisenhower Memorial Go It Alone Without Congress?

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Frustrated with critics of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, now 16 years in the making, backers of Frank Gehry’s design appear to be putting their faith in former Sen. Bob Dole.  

“We need $150 [million] and he raised $170 [million] for the World War II Memorial,” boasted Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., when asked about the former Senate majority leader’s bullish private fundraising effort. "We've got the [Veterans of Foreign Wars]. We got all the veterans groups. ... I think it is coming together."  

If Roberts' fellow Kansas Republican can do the same for Ike, the thinking goes, then to heck with Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have demanded designers appease the Eisenhower family. But the private fundraising push belies planners’ expectation that Congress will eventually foot half the bill for the memorial. The agency Congress authorized in 1999 to memorialize Ike is still counting on the government to provide more than 50 percent of its funding, according to budget figures provided to CQ Roll Call.  

"Congressional support would be the most ideal course of action, but of course I think [Roberts] wants to get it done before the World War II veterans are all dead," said Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., who has defended the project against dissenters on the House Appropriations Committee.  

In a scathing report, the committee has called for a "reset" on the project, citing the Eisenhower family's "legitimate concerns" over size, scope and values reflected in the design. They proposed zeroed funding related to memorializing the 34th president. Supporters seem to be trying to shift the spotlight from that controversy in Washington, and are pleading their case beyond the Beltway.  

"Consensus is still the goal," Bishop said. "But at the same time, the planning [is] not stopping. ... I guess you want to proceed on more than one track at a time."  

Roberts is working behind the scenes to sway his colleagues.  

During a Senate Subway ride, the senior senator told a freshman colleague why the monument to Ike "can't wait 30 years," comparing the project to the seemingly endless delays preceding the May 1997 dedication of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  

Like the granite walls of the secluded FDR memorial, Gehry's blueprints for the 4-acre urban park are not traditional. Anchored by 80-foot columns with a 447-foot tapestry defining the southern edge of the memorial, the plan featuring sculptures of Eisenhower as a young man, war hero and political leader has been loudly denounced.  

"Because of the fierce controversy surrounding Frank Gehry's inappropriate and gargantuan design, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which has been in existence for 16 years, has at the cost of $1.1 million  raised only $1.5 million of private money for the $150 million project," said Bruce Cole, an art historian appointed by President Barack Obama to the EMC, and one of Gehry's most vocal critics.  

"Very simple, very elegant," said Roberts, assessing the design. He also emphasized he wants harmony. "I don’t want to get into all the details, but we changed [the design] several times to address the concerns of the family. ... I’m not trying to close any doors," he added. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, another EMC commissioner and a House appropriator, said the design is still a problem with members of Congress and the Eisenhower family. Simpson doesn't think planners can go it alone. "They're also going to depend on some congressional appropriation," he said. The Senate has shown more support for the memorial. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democratic appropriator from Rhode Island, suggested a major private commitment “adds momentum." Congress has not provided any construction funds for the project since fiscal 2012, when Reed served as a commissioner on the panel planning Eisenhower’s memorial. He resigned  in 2014 to "bring in new perspectives." “I think that was one of the key areas of concern is that, you know, this has to be substantially supported by private contributions, not federal funds," Reed said, when asked about appropriations. Removing that obstacle makes the path to construction "maybe not a completely smooth, but I think a much easier, path," he said.  

The EMC has $17 million left in the bank, of the approximately $63 million it has received since it was authorized in 1999. The commission estimates construction will cost $90 million, “plus government-required soft costs.” Under the 1986 law governing commemorative works in Washington, any entity that receives a permit to construct a memorial in D.C. must donate an amount equal to 10 percent of the project's estimated construction cost to the National Park Service to defray future maintenance costs. Asked if the sum took into account that value, an EMC spokesperson stated, “the 10 [percent] does not apply to this project if the government provides more than 50 [percent] of the funding.” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who quit the commission last year, expressed full faith in the private fundraising effort.  

“It’s a high bar, but Sen. Dole is somebody who has that capability,” Moran said, declining to weigh in on the aesthetics of the design . “He knows how to accomplish this.” Denying funding seems to be the only tool in Congress' belt when it comes to delaying Gehry's design from becoming reality. No bills have been introduced this Congress to target the Eisenhower memorial. House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah., an opponent of the design, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.  

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