All of which has led to the contentiousness that Senator Roberts finds wearying: the December 2011 resignation of David Eisenhower, the former president’s grandson, from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, on which he was the only family member serving; March 2012 congressional testimony by Susan and Anne Eisenhower expressing the family’s united opposition to the original Gehry design; a strongly worded October 2012 letter to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission from Ike’s son, John, opposing the Gehry design; a February 2013 technical report from the National Capital Planning Commission raising serious concerns about the durability, cleanliness, and safety of the steel-mesh scrims that dominate Gehry’s design; and, most recently, the March 2013 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Public Lands on a bill by chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah) that called for a new design competition to be overseen by a reformed Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and the elimination of $100 million in funding earmarked for constructing Gehry’s design — the intent being to hold a fair, open, and transparent competition that would avoid the manifest flaws in the original process.
Thus Senator Roberts’s weariness is quite understandable. What doesn’t make sense is his conclusion: that the only way forward is to build the Eisenhower Memorial according to the Gehry design, so that it might be completed in this decade.
There is something quite striking about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial: It has achieved a rare feat of ecumenism in 21st-century American public life, in that a broad swath of opinion thinks it’s horrible. (Or, as The New Yorker, no bastion of architectural classicism, put it, “In true bipartisan spirit, nearly everyone hates it.”) Distinguished columnists such as George Will, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks have inveighed against the Gehry design, as have public intellectuals such as Bruce Cole (former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and Roger Scruton. Nor can the design’s supporters claim that their opposition comes exclusively from the right. Representative Jim Moran (D., Va.) and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen are both opponents of Gehry’s design, and articles critical of it have appeared in The New Republic, the Baltimore Sun, and the Boston Globe.
In a recent interview, Senator Roberts made two points: that the Gehry design “fits Eisenhower’s life” and is “what he would have wanted,” and that an Eisenhower Memorial is “highly deserved.” Here, the good senator bats .500.
As to Roberts’s first assertion, it’s not self-evidently clear why Ike, whose aesthetic tastes ran to Louis L’Amour cowboy novels, would have “wanted” a memorial that has absolutely nothing to do with what men of his time understood to be appropriate public art: a design that’s far less a monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower and his enormous achievements than it’s an expression of postmodernism’s determination to level the human condition down to least common denominators expressed in art of incomprehensible abstraction. Nor is it clear why Ike, a genius at logistics, and a military commander and president who insisted on orderly process, would have “wanted” his memorial confected by a deeply flawed competition that seems to have been rigged from the start to get Frank Gehry the place his acolytes have long sought for him in monumental Washington.
Yet Senator Roberts is quite right that Eisenhower deserves a memorial in the nation’s capital. What he deserves, however, is a fitting memorial. The Gehry design is anything but that; and there is absolutely no need to fix some artificial and arbitrary point at which the Eisenhower Memorial must be completed. The Gehry design should be scrapped, once and for all, because of its inherent unsuitability, the serious questions that have been raised about its sustainability, and the untoward process that led to its adoption. The competition should be started anew, and the process of finding a more appropriate design should be genuinely open.
That might, just might, produce an Eisenhower memorial worthy of the man, and worthy of monumental Washington as it ought to be.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.