The Magazine

Downsize Ike

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In approving Bishop’s bill, Congress would be honoring the request made late last year by John S. D. Eisenhower on behalf of his family. An accomplished historian and a fine writer, Eisenhower proved that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. He asked that the present design for a memorial to his father be withdrawn in favor of a fresh start. “I am the first to admit that this memorial should be designed for the benefit of the people, not our family,” he wrote. Still, “the scope and scale of it is too extravagant. .  .  . [American taxpayers] have priorities more urgent than building such an expensive memorial right now.” In place of Gehry’s absurdities, he recommended that Eisenhower square on Maryland Avenue be constructed “as a green open space with a simple statue in the middle.”

It may be that the very idea of an Eisenhower memorial was misbegotten. It is an artifact of the 1990s, when a kind of memorial mania seized the caretakers of the capital’s monumental core. Every special pleader wanted in on the act. “Memorial envy” junked up the National Mall with overblown, and now irreversible, mistakes like the cartoonish FDR memorial and the vast, aimless World War II memorial, and the quasi-Stalinist tribute to Martin Luther King. A game of oneupsmanship was put in play. If FDR gets seven acres on the mall, why can’t Ike get four acres a few yards off the mall? And if the good Republican Ike gets his expensive, high-concept tribute, then shouldn’t we consider balancing it with a good Democrat, JFK? And if JFK gets a grand monument, then surely Reagan .  .  .

It’s time to call a truce. Reconceiving the Ike tribute would be a welcome de-escalation in memorial mania. By all means let us honor Ike. As John Eisenhower suggests, we can even keep the four-acre square on Maryland Avenue if his admirers will accept nothing less—indeed, the resulting traffic gridlock could be seen as a reminder of the Interstate Highway System that President Eisenhower did so much to advance. Ring the new square with shade trees and raise in the middle an expressive statue on a handsome plinth. Place a placard here and there with enough information to satisfy the pedagogues.

Models for such a scheme exist throughout Washington, after all, to the honor of many gallant warriors and to the capital’s everlasting benefit. It was good enough for the martyred James B. McPherson, hero of the Battle of Atlanta, in his square at 15th and Vermont, NW, and for the Rock of Chickamauga, General George Henry Thomas, in his 14th Street roundabout. General Sheridan astride his steed in his circle on Massachusetts Avenue tells us far more about the essence of “Little Phil” than the mysterious columns and boxes of Gehry’s diorama could ever tell us about Ike. And at far less cost, too—in money, in time, and in public fuss.

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