In 1999, Congress authorized a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower and set up the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to organize it. That body handed the contract to Frank Gehry, whose design showed a young Ike gazing dreamily at depictions of his adulthood heroics. But Eisenhower’s descendants objected; his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, attacked the design on a number of fronts at a hearing in March. In May, Gehry modified his design to focus more on Ike’s accomplishments, but then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked the commission to pause until he had brokered a solution. Susan Eisenhower spoke with National Journal about the controversy. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ The commission says that the Eisenhower family didn’t express major concerns about the design until late 2011. Is that true?
EISENHOWER No. Members of the Eisenhower family have been deeply engaged with the memorial commission. It should be noted that the concept changed in 2011. After feedback from the approval authorities, Gehry Partners created a new design focused on the statue of Ike as a “barefoot boy” gazing at his future career as a general and two-term president. This new idea, in our minds, emphasized Eisenhower’s roots rather than his accomplishments. We are very proud of Ike’s origins, but it is not the reason he was chosen to be memorialized. We made our concerns known after our family had a chance to see it.
Let me just talk to you about what bothers me about this. This whole thing is premised on him dreaming about his career and how one day he could grow up and be someone important. [But it should be about] leadership and public service, not about fulfilling your dreams. He wasn’t dreaming of being given an assignment that was absolutely horrific.… Do you know how many people died in Europe during World War II?
NJ Personally, I don’t—
EISENHOWER Twenty-five million on the Eastern front. There were about 10.5 million Allied soldiers who lost their lives. Who dreams about that? Nobody. At the Guildhall Address at the end of World War II [London, June 12, 1945], probably the most important speech he ever gave—Europe lay in ruins, and he’s standing in front of millions of Londoners. And without a note, he stood up and recited his speech. He wrote that speech himself. He said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” Do you see? This is about everyone else, not about him. If this memorial is not also a memorial for the victims of those times and the people he led, then it
will fail to succeed.
NJ Can you reach a compromise with Frank Gehry?
EISENHOWER We have been in regular contact with Gehry Partners and their representatives, and we have interacted to the extent that is appropriate. It should be remembered that neither the Eisenhower family nor Gehry Partners has any authority over the memorial. The Eisenhower Memorial Commissioners are charged by Congress to make the decisions about the design and its concept. There is no family member that sits on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and Mr. Gehry’s client is the EMC. After the commission makes its final decisions, which could include support for the Gehry concept or even support for an open competitive redesign, a set of reviews will then come into play.
NJ The commission chief told a House committee that the Eisenhower family decided it would no longer cooperate with Gehry. Is that right?
EISENHOWER The only thing we declined to do was to make a trip to California at taxpayer expense. There have been cordial and lively interactions. Points of difference, however, still exist.
NJ You said that commissioners had to pay heed to a complaint that part of the design looks like Auschwitz. Does that comparison have merit?
EISENHOWER The 80-foot-tall metal scrims have been very controversial, drawing concerns mostly from people of the World War II and Cold War generations. In talking about the importance of nonverbal images, I used this, and a number of other examples, to underscore that it is critically important that we be sensitive to the context of Eisenhower’s time and to public opinion—especially the feelings of those who were victims. I don’t think the design team could have imagined such responses, just as they had not occurred to us. Nonverbal symbolism, even unintentional, can be as important and powerful as the words of quotation that are etched in stone.
NJ How would you like the rest of this process to play out?
EISENHOWER A public debate is already under way, and we should not be afraid of it. Any time there’s public money involved in a project, it is absolutely legitimate. This will be, after all, America’s memorial—a solid and permanent statement on a person who successfully led us in the midst of our turbulent times.
This article appears in the June 30, 2012, edition of National Journal.