Eisenhower Memorial Plan Still Faces Skepticism, Despite Approvals
Capitol Hill’s representatives on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission remain skeptical the monument to the 34th president will break ground next year, despite rosy projections from commission staff.
“Ultimately, what I think you’ve got to have is a buy-in from the Eisenhower family,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, one of six members of Congress on the bipartisan commission. Anne and Susan Eisenhower have requested a simpler design, although the current plan has gained traction with two of the federal entities that must sign off on final plans for the Southwest Washington memorial park.
“I don’t think you can do a memorial when you’ve got the family opposed to it,” Simpson said. He declined to give his own opinion of architect Frank Gehry’s plan for statues of Ike as a young boy in Kansas, World War II commander and president, set against a massive stainless steel tapestry depicting prairie scenery. Gehry’s plan originally called for two additional tapestries. But those were scrapped, leaving two freestanding 80-foot columns that have continued to draw criticism.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., helped steer the long-stalled project out of neutral this spring, when he proposed Gehry pare down the design to appease the family. But the EMC ultimately moved forward with the columns. Along the way, Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., resigned. Senate leaders have yet to appoint their replacements.
The commission staff celebrated when the National Capital Planning Commission voted for preliminary design approval in early October, after Gehry modified his blueprints. Two weeks later, when the Commission on Fine Arts approved the revised concept, the EMC declared the Eisenhower National Memorial “is ready to move forward with groundbreaking in 2015.”
Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a House appointee to the EMC, suggested in an interview that Issa made “very strong arguments” about the “inordinate amount of taxpayer money” that’s been invested in the project since Congress authorized a memorial in 1999. Those arguments helped persuade the commissions and, Bishop said, might help persuade his congressional colleagues to authorize funding. “It would be a shame to have those decades of money wasted, scrapped and have to start over,” Bishop said.
However, fiscal 2015 will not be a windfall for the project.
“There’s no funding for construction in this year’s appropriation,” Rep. Ken Calvert, the California Republican who holds the gavel on the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Eisenhower memorial in this Congress and the next, said in a Nov. 20 interview. Calvert and his colleagues are working out the details of a spending agreement that will keep the government funding after a short-term deal expires on Dec. 11.
“If the family and … mainly the family works out a solution to the problem, we’ll be interested in hearing that next year and we’ll look at it then,” Calvert said. An omnibus agreement would include “limited” funds for the commission, according to Calvert.
Congress previously halved funding to cover operating costs for the professional staff at the commission’s K Street office suite. It also eliminated a waiver that allowed the commission to proceed with construction before funds for the memorial’s design and construction had been raised. House appropriators voted to eliminate all funding for the project this summer, but that language was not included in the continuing resolution. The Senate’s version of the spending bill would authorize $1 million for commission operations.
“We’re not ready to give a green light to this just yet,” said Rep. James P. Moran, the retiring Virginia Democrat who serves as ranking member on the House Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee. He noted that Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources panel with jurisdiction over national monuments, still has “a lot of reservations” about the project. “I have reservations, the Eisenhower family still has some reservations; this is not a done deal,” Moran said.
The EMC does not envision breaking ground in fiscal 2015, though by late 2015, the commission staff projects there might be enough money to begin the site prep phase, according to spokeswoman Chris Cimko. The commission is banking on previously expended construction funding from Congress, plus fundraising that is under way.
Significant hurdles remain. Gehry’s design must get final approval from federal agencies, including the NCPC and the CFA. A scathing report from the House Natural Resources Committee, which the EMC has sought to refute, has also hurt the project’s reputation on Capitol Hill. Citing those figures, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., included the memorial in his annual “Wastebook” of frivolous government spending.
Asked if preliminary approvals might help sway Congress, Moran was quick with a joke. “I’m sure it was good quality wine that they used to celebrate,” he quipped, “but it may be a little premature.”