A battle is under way over the legacy of the 34th president, and at the heart of it is Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower.
Since late last year—when architect Frank Gehry began finalizing his design for a national memorial to the late president opposite the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall—pundits, critics, and descendants of Ike have been in high dudgeon over the proposal’s focal point: a life-size sculpture of a teenage Eisenhower gazing dreamily at the horizon.
At a congressional hearing last month, Susan Eisenhower lambasted the design.
“One of the main flaws of the current proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial is that Eisenhower’s contribution to this nation is not the central theme of the design,” she testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
“The narrative is muddled and never really gives us the ‘bottom line’ phrase that articulates his contribution to the nation.... Proponents of the [Gehry plan] believe that children will be inspired by seeing themselves in the design-element’s young Eisenhower. I wonder about this premise. Children are not impressed by children. They want to be superheroes.”
In fact, Gehry chose to emphasize the president’s modest beginnings—Ike was one of seven boys born to a creamery worker in Abilene, Kan.—after reading a speech that Gen. Eisenhower delivered toward the end of World War II.
“Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy, I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy,” said the liberator of Europe and future two-term president. “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
This pronouncement notwithstanding, Susan Eisenhower argues that Gehry has allowed Ike’s humility to eclipse his historic role in vanquishing fascism abroad and ushering in peace and plenty at home. (This is not her only objection to the design; she likens Gehry’s “tapestries,” or stainless-steel scrims suspended on 80-foot-high columns, to the “Iron Curtain.”)
The contest of wills between Susan Eisenhower and the congressionally chartered commission that selected Gehry’s design has only intensified in recent weeks. In a bid to quell the mounting controversy, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission issued a statement on March 27 expressing its “total and unqualified support” for the illustrious architect.
But the Eisenhower family has not relented, and Susan Eisenhower has hinted at a major announcement touching on the memorial in the near future.
One irony of the acrimonious affair is that Susan’s brother, David Eisenhower, sat on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission until his resignation last December to chair the Eisenhower Foundation’s board of directors. (Reportedly, David Eisenhower even recommended an excerpt from one of his grandfather’s speeches to be integrated into Gehry’s design.) The timing of his departure has led to speculation that he vacated his seat at the behest of his family—a rumor Susan Eisenhower vehemently denies. During her appearance on Capitol Hill, she disclosed a letter from her brother affirming his solidarity with the family.
“I am in full support of the family’s decision to share our concerns with the public,” he wrote, “and I endorse the family’s efforts to gain a thorough review of the currently proposed design, including a redesign.”
Given the current impasse, the future of the Eisenhower Memorial may well be decided in Congress. A presidential memorial in Washington has never proceeded without the endorsement of family members, and when relatives of Franklin D. Roosevelt objected to an early design—citing FDR’s famous remark that he wanted his memorial to be no bigger than his desk—the plan was scrubbed.
Underlying the escalating feud is a broader question: What role should family members play in shaping the legacy of a president? Susan Eisenhower, who was present at her grandfather’s deathbed, told National Journal Daily that she “understands and respects the fact that people think that family members shouldn’t have a big sway.... But our situation is a little different: My grandfather’s son and heir is still alive. That doesn’t mean that our vote is worth any more than any ordinary American’s vote, but it does mean that we have some sense of who he was.”
Susan’s father and the late president’s only heir is John S.D. Eisenhower, 89, a retired brigadier general in the Army Reserves who served as ambassador to Belgium during the Nixon administration.
A lifelong Republican, Susan Eisenhower, 60, surprised many in the GOP by endorsing Barack Obama for president in 2008 and speaking at his nominating convention in Denver. Today she is president of The Eisenhower Group, a Washington consulting firm, and is active in Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute.
This article appears in the April 19, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.