"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."
Some of the criticisms are valid but ultimately become a Tower of Babel, leading to nowhere. That's too bad, because as now conceived the memorial honors with dignity and meaning the man we remember this week on the 68h anniversary of D-Day.
The memorial is made up of three major 9-foot sculptures, one of Ike as a young man looking toward his future, another of the general as depicted in the famous photograph talking to soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division before they board the planes to drop them into France, and a third as the president, poised with his hand on a large globe. Huge "tapestries" of metallic mesh, held by 80-foot columns, form a backdrop of the Kansas landscape where Ike grew up.
This reflects the speech he made at his hometown of Abilene, when he returned in June 1945. He recalled the words of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier about a barefoot boy with cheeks of tan. "Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy," he said, "I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy."
These images appeal to all those who remember the aspirations of their own youth, and demonstrate how one important man never forgot his roots. The Eisenhower memorial will be close by the World War II memorial, an exuberant monument with splashing fountains and triumphant bronze. The memorial to Ike is meant as a complement to the commemoration of the clash and bang of war, a place of reflection in a grove of trees.
What he said on his return as conquering hero should be inscribed on a panel somewhere: "I am not a hero. I am a symbol of all the heroic men you people and all the United States have sent to war." Ike would like that.