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Memorial War

Lawmakers Square Off in Dispute Over Monument to World War I Heroes

All Rep. Emanuel Cleaver wants is for his hometown’s World War I memorial to have the status of a national monument.

But as with most things on Capitol Hill, it’s not so simple for the Missouri Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus chairman, who might be forced to abandon his years-long mission in deference to the District of Columbia. 

Like most war stories, this one has a long history and unforeseen consequences.

During the 110th Congress, Cleaver introduced a bill to nationalize Kansas City’s World War I memorial — its adjoining museum is already the National World War I Museum. About the same time, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) sponsored a bill to nationalize the District of Columbia War Memorial, which commemorates the 26,000 Washington, D.C., citizens who fought in World War I and which is little-known and all but hidden on the National Mall.

Cleaver’s bill passed the House in the 111th Congress with only one Member in opposition. But it stalled in the Senate, with opponents arguing that the nation’s capital was the rightful place to host a national World War I memorial.

Senators reached a “two-site solution,” merging the bills to give each memorial a national designation, in addition to creating a commission to plan celebratory events for the Great War’s centennial in 2014.

Poe took up the compromise bill in the 112th Congress and asked Cleaver to sign on as a co-sponsor, which he did.

Things then got stickier.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) began speaking out against the new bill, calling it a hijack of a monument that District residents paid for “in blood and treasure.” She co-sponsored Poe’s D.C. memorial bill in the previous Congress, a move she said in retrospect was a desperate attempt to win money to refurbish the aging structure.

At a press conference last week, standing alongside Mayor Vincent Gray, she said she would lobby Democrats to pull support from the House bill, arguing that there was no way her allies would support legislation that is “anti-D.C.”

“If there are any Democrats on the bill, I’m sure I can convince them to get off it,” Norton said. “If Democrats are on the bill, they must think I’m for it.”

Facing Defeat

It all puts Cleaver and other Democrats in a spot nobody could have anticipated when he introduced his bill four years ago.

Cleaver signed onto the compromise bill last year solely as a strategy to get the national designation for the World War I memorial in Kansas City, where he served as mayor from 1991 to 1999.

He stands with Norton, he said, against efforts to rededicate the District’s monument as the “D.C. and National World War I Memorial.”

“Kansas City never asked for D.C. to be in the legislation,” Cleaver told Roll Call. “And now Kansas City is being punished because some guy — not someone from Kansas City, not someone from D.C. — went out and got people all confused.”

“Some guy” is Edwin Fountain, a Virginia resident who practices law in D.C. and serves as one of the directors of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which is leading the fight to nationalize the D.C. memorial.

Fountain, whose group teamed up with Poe on his legislation, disputes Cleaver’s version of events that describes him as a spoiler who used the late Frank Buckles, then 109 years old and the last living American World War I veteran, as leverage for his movement.

“This is not a political thing for me. I’m the grandson of two World War I veterans, and I feel there should be a national World War I memorial in Washington, D.C.,” Fountain said. “When we were doing our bill, I had no clue about Kansas City. I had never anticipated that objection.”

Poe, whose bill is named in Buckles’ memory, at least in part because the veteran supported the nationalization of the D.C. memorial, also waves away criticisms that the bill is an affront to the people of D.C.

“It’s not being taken away from anybody, it’s just being expanded,” Poe said. “The D.C. memorial is on the National Mall, so we should expand it to include everyone in the nation, not just D.C. veterans.”

Fountain and Poe also said the D.C. memorial is being targeted not out of disrespect for D.C. residents, but because National Mall space is scarce and expensive, making expansion of a pre-existing structure the best option.

Motivations aside, the bottom line is that Norton, Gray, local officials and D.C. activists are prepared to raise hell against Democrats who support Poe’s bill in the House — and not even Cleaver would be off the hook.

For DC Vote, the leading organization in the area fighting for D.C. autonomy, there’s no room for compromise.

“You can’t do both of those things,” DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said of the dozens of House Democrats and CBC members who are co-sponsors of Cleaver’s bill. “You can’t help [Cleaver] and stick it to the District.”

Norton, who said she’s sympathetic to Cleaver, also suggested that his continued co-sponsorship of the bill would be unacceptable.

“Emanuel Cleaver is the last person who would ever have intended to take away from the District of Columbia the memorial to its war heroes,” Norton said, “[but] we’ve made it clear that under no circumstances will we allow anyone to have a taking of the District of Columbia.”

At the end of the day, Cleaver said, he’ll probably have to drop his support of the legislation.

“There’s no point in me remaining on a bill when I’m being accused wrongfully of trying to jeopardize the independence of the District of Columbia, when I’ve been a major supporter before and since being elected to Congress,” Cleaver said. “I’m almost resentful of the District people who are accusing me of doing something to them when I’ve always been one of their supporters.”

His Democratic allies, Cleaver said, will likely drop off with him, sparing themselves from criticism.

Chance for Survival?

Norton thinks there might still be a chance for compromise.

At a hearing on Poe’s bill last week at the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public Land, Peter May of the National Park Service indicated that the legislation in its current form could run afoul of the Commemorative Works Act.

May, the associate regional director for lands, resources and planning for the NPS’ National Capital Region, told the panel that the law prohibits “superimposing another subject on an existing memorial, particularly if new features are added.” 

May said expanding the District’s World War I memorial also would violate a requirement that “the site and design for the new memorial be developed in a public process.”

He suggested that Pershing Park could be a suitable alternative. Near the White House, the First Division Monument and the Second Division Memorial, the park’s statue of famed World War I Gen. John Pershing includes an inscription honoring those who served in the U.S. Navy and the American Expeditionary Forces.

Though Fountain, Poe and others have maintained that they want their national memorial to have the prestige of placement on the National Mall, Norton said the NPS’ position could force them to rethink their stance.

Norton and Cleaver said they were trying to get Fountain, Poe and others in a room together this week. In the event an agreement can’t be reached, Cleaver said he doesn’t imagine the bill in its current form will have much more of a future.

“[House leadership] could say, ‘Two months of conflict and controversy — we’ll just leave it alone,’” Cleaver said. “We will kill the bill, and hopefully, the Senate and people around the world will be able to see that this Congress can’t pass a simple bill to celebrate the centennial in recognition of … World War I. I’m really sad.”

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