Eisenhower Deserves Better: So Does The Nation

Today, the initial design chosen for the Eisenhower memorial was chosen. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry, and features such interesting features as 80 foot tall, totally featureless cylinders (not columns; cylinders), and a big empty space in the center surrounded by plants. This incredibly boring, almost “corporate art” memorial is set to be built on our National Mall between the Capitol of the United States and the Washington Monument, compared to which, even that huge, blank, white obelisk will look elaborate and detailed.

The monument is supposed to commemorate a man who was not only a President of the United States, but probably more importantly, was the man who led the World’s greatest crusade (his words) in the cause of liberty ever assembled. He was an exceptionally humble man, by necessity since he said that humility was the part of a man whose fame was built on the sacrifice of his followers and blood of his friends.

Growing up out of  a Protestant, Midwestern background, I am sure Eisenhower would not want something overly grandiose, but then, all of our great Presidents were of that mold; Lincoln would probably be mildly horrified by probably the most eloquent, powerful, and beautiful memorial ever built. The point is not what Eisenhower would have thought appropriate, given his humility and practicality, but what is appropriate to take up priceless space along our nation’s Mall. Any memorial built on that Mall is not something designed to honor one man, but something designed to edify and educate a Nation, and to show the connection between our great history and this man who helped build part of it.

Any memorial to President Eisenhower is also a memorial to those fighting men he led in World War II, of whom he said his greatest claim was to have been their fellow soldier. He led the greatest force ever assembled in human history, and that force, if not the man who led them, deserves a lot more than totally blank, 80 foot high cylinders.

If you walk into the Lincoln memorial, you are immediately surrounded by not just an overwhelming, yet somehow approachable image of the man himself, but also by a wall inscribed with Lincoln’s greatest words. The Jefferson Memorial also encapsulates something of the man himself and his vision and ideas. These instantly edify and challenge us to think, to know, to learn about these men and their influence. Eisenhower was a thoughtful man who was famous for his sayings and wisdom. What of that is reflected in a big empty space surrounded by shrubbery and big, blank, cylinders? This design has more inherent connection to a well done shopping mall than the heritage of our Nation’s Mall.

Eisenhower had a Latin motto, as did many in his generation; “Sauviter in modo, fortiter in re”, which means; “Gently in Manner, Strongly in Deed”. He was humble in life, not the kind of man who would call for great monuments; thus, “gently in manner” yet he led the greatest crusade for liberty of all time. This memorial is the “deed” which should be done strongly. I believe he would have called for it, for he would not want his name to be used to lessen the Nation’s Capitol Mall, nor would he want a memorial to ignore the men he led and intentionally say absolutely nothing about anything.

Eisenhower was also an amateur painter. He obviously had an aesthetic sense, and his paintings reflect a clear sense of the World around him. He was not a master artist by any means, but he did paint in a representational manner, carefully developing a painting to follow the true color and shape of a subject. He seemed to want to display some of the beauty he saw in the World around him through this hobby. How does a totally non representational, almost random assortment of stone and bushes reflect the man’s artistic sense?

We have established memorials to great men who led our soldiers in battle before. You don’t have to walk far from the site of the proposed Eisenhower memorial to see a beautiful sculpture dedicated to General George Meade, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol. I would highly recommend the memorial to Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th, of Civil War fame, in Boston, done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Can a landscape element fit for a shopping center really compare to such sublime creations? Is it fit to stand on the Nation’s Mall? Can we justify placing a “memorial” that literally sets out to say nothing, to be mediocre, to attempt non controversy and thereby attains controversial status, on the same Mall as the Lincoln Memorial?

At issue is not just one memorial, at issue is an idea. The capitol was supposed to belong to the people of this nation. They used to come to the House Chamber, sit up in the balconies, and eat picnic lunches while the Members debated. Washington was designed around the “people’s house”, with the small, comparatively unimpressive executive mansion paced off to one side on purpose. This was a physical implementation of the ideas of our founders. The plan of the city was intentionally instituted, overseen by George Washington, to say in stone and statue what the Constitution and Declaration of Independence said in parchment and ink.

Now, while people across the Nation are increasingly interested in rediscovery of our founding documents and principles, Washington is architecturally being transformed into a strip mall. A Capitol Visitor’s Center is built which herds the people who supposedly own the people’s house into a contained area below the feet of the Congressional sultans, out-of-the-way and entombed in a structure fit for a low-cost Las Vegas  casino. Gehry’s design fits in perfectly with the visitor’s center, and clashes obscenely with everything Washington used to stand for.

The people deserve an application of the design their capitol was built on, Eisenhower deserves a lot more than blank cylinders, and the people he led, who made him famous and sent him on the road to the Presidency deserve a hell of a lot more for their sacrifice. I’m sure Eisenhower would agree.

It’s not about a monument, it’s about taking back our Capitol. Eisenhower deserves better, and so does the nation.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on March 26, 2010.

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