Dwight D. Eisenhower was privy to the greatest events of the 20th century. As commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force that liberated Europe, who then made a successful transition to politics, his achievements bring George Washington to mind. As a two-term president who held his party together and was almost as respected going out as coming in, he's reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. He's ubiquitous on the silver dollar and in the speeches and blogs of those who denounce the "military-industrial complex." Such a man deserves a memorial, but probably not the one planned for him.
The Eisenhower National Memorial was commissioned in 1999, but the design was not unveiled until late last year, to a mixed reception. In December the controversy exploded when David Eisenhower, grandson of the president, resigned from the memorial committee and the Eisenhower family unanimously voiced their disapproval of the concept: a small grove of oak trees surrounded by huge concrete cylinders holding up "tapestries" of stainless steel mesh. According to the official site, these tapestries "will depict images of Eisenhower's life, amplifying the setting and creating an ideal background for the memorial experience." The "memorial experience" itself will center around one piece of statuary, a life-size figure of Eisenhower, not as leader of the free world or commander of the allies, but as a Kansas farm boy.
The "Ike tyke" is supposedly inspired by Eisenhower's speech during a visit to his home state after the war, in which he referred to himself as a "barefoot boy" and added: "[T]he proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene." He probably never imagined any commission would take that literally. Sockless lads of the past were told that they could grow up to be president; now presidents can aspire to be remembered as sockless lads.
The Eisenhower family is perturbed, but the National Civic Art Society is incensed. In a four-page online report, they make their case that the grant process was rigged to land a showy commission for celebrity architect Frank Gehry, whose whimsical structures celebrate "chaos." Whether or not those charges are true, one might reasonably ask if Gehry intends to memorialize himself as much as the president, since concrete silos and twisted strips of metal don't say "Eisenhower" to most people.
On the west end of the National Mall is a classical structure that makes a different statement about a man of achievement. The Lincoln Memorial commission would never have considered portraying their subject as a barefoot boy from Kentucky. The 19-foot statue that dominates the building imposes the idea of greatness, even on a visitor who knows nothing about the man. That huge hunk of marble anchors Lincoln in public memory, his actual virtues and flaws adding up to much more than their sum. Like every great man, he grew to fit the demands of the hour. His memorial reflects not only what he did, but how highly we regard it.
Frank Gehry may not be one of them, but there is a class of elites in our society for whom the very idea of "great man" or "war hero" calls for scare quotes. The proposed design of the Eisenhower memorial, intentionally or not, plays to the ironic view of history as endless revision. Will this boy become a hero? That's up to each individual to decide. Our collective memory, which takes concrete form along both sides of the Mall, shouldn't have much to say about it.
In his first inaugural address, a reasoned plea to the Southern states to think hard about the consequences of separating from the union, Lincoln appealed to "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave"-the recollection of shared sacrifice and common goals that tied the country together. Memory binds us until we start forgetting, until we can't even form a common image of what greatness is. Whether deliberate or careless, forgetfulness creates a hollow in our soul, as airy as a breeze blowing through steel mesh.