Suzanne Fields

"Moving forward" is suddenly everybody's cliche in a city that thrives on political cliches, but there's another Washington that looks to the past -- or at least a commemoration of the past, and how we pay homage to the men who shaped the nation's destiny. Our most famous marble testifies to the memory of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Every visitor, particularly the children who flood the capital's streets every spring and summer, learns the memorials are as much a part of Washington as the men and women who make the noise of Capitol Hill. Just as these structures of bronze and stone bear witness to a heroic past, a fresh debate is brewing over a new memorial, this one to honor Dwight D. Eisenhower, the architect of D-Day and the 34th president of the United States.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission chose the famous and flamboyant contemporary architect Frank Gehry to design it, an odd choice of an artist to depict a president known for his quiet and gentleman-like humility. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wants to know how Gehry was chosen, and is trying to delay moving forward until he gets some answers before a vote to set the memorial in stone. He's not the only one.

Even after a tweaking of the original concept, the design of the memorial is taking friendly fire (and some not so friendly) from critics, including grandchildren of the Eisenhower. Some of the criticism is about the architect's political ideology as well as his aesthetic. Nothing new about that. It wouldn't be Washington without ascribing politics to everything and have a holy row about it.

When a monument to George Washington was authorized by Congress immediately after his death, the Jeffersonian Republicans tried to squelch the idea. They didn't want a symbol of the opposition in their midst. Critics of the design of a Greek marble temple to honor Abraham Lincoln said it was much too grand for a man of such humble disposition. They suggested a log cabin. Critics in our own time argued that depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt in a wheelchair was wrong because he never allowed himself to be photographed in one. The wheels won, and FDR may still be spinning.

The Eisenhower memorial in its current design has become target of big guns who imagine they're as big as the guns that pounded the Normandy beaches. A panel of experts at a conservative think tank regrets what it calls an overwrought narrative, avant-garde materials and unease in confronting the subject of war; one of the critics suggested kicking in the whole idea and live with the "old stuff."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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