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Not Set in Stone: Congress Weighs In on Planned Eisenhower Memorial

A few months ago, a national memorial for President Dwight Eisenhower appeared on track for groundbreaking this year. But new concerns about the substance and structure of the proposed design are threatening to derail that momentum.

On Tuesday, Congress is stepping in.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands will hold a hearing Tuesday morning to examine how the process of choosing a concept for the memorial has begun, in the words of one Congressman, to “unravel.”

It comes after a flurry of media reports on the public airing of grievances by members of the Eisenhower family: They argue that the design unanimously approved last year by the Congressionally appointed Eisenhower Memorial Commission and envisioned by renowned architect Frank Gehry does not appropriately reflect the legacy of the president and war hero.

“Gehry’s memorial design proposes to highlight a ‘barefoot boy from Abilene,’ who sits in the shadow of 80-foot woven metal ‘tapestries’ that depict the Kansas landscape,” wrote Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, earlier this year. “Yet little has been said about the best way to capture Dwight Eisenhower’s contribution to his nation — the very reason he is being memorialized in the first place.”

At this point, only a handful of lawmakers are intimately involved in the Eisenhower memorial’s development — the eight who sit on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission: Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.).

This hearing will mark the first time in recent memory that input on the project has been opened up outside this small circle to the broader Congressional community, a move that could pave the way for greater involvement by Members of Congress going forward. 

Lawmakers have mixed perspectives, though, on what their involvement should be.

Advocate or Arbiter?

Some lawmakers are advocating a halt in the project. 

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wants the National Capital Planning Commission, which has the authority to green-light the next phase of the memorial’s development, to reject the current design and allow other architects to submit proposals.

“I agree with Susan Eisenhower that depicting her grandfather as a barefoot adolescent is inappropriate for a memorial on the National Mall and would not convey the importance of his achievements,” Wolf wrote in a February letter to the NCPC. 

The memorial is planned for a four-acre parcel on Independence Avenue between Fourth and Sixth streets Southwest, across the street from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Republican Reps. Dan Lungren (Calif.) and Aaron Schock (Ill.), chairman and member, respectively, of the House Administration Committee that oversees the Capitol grounds, wrote their own letter in support of the Eisenhower family, joining them in wanting “a more traditional design that truly depicts President Eisenhower’s character and accomplishments.”Members of Congress are certainly within their rights to complain. Congress mandated the memorial’s creation in 1999 and has appropriated funding for the undertaking each year since. In all, the memorial will cost $90 million to $110 million.

However, some lawmakers who serve on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and have leadership roles on the National Parks subpanel say they and their peers should withhold judgment until they get more information.

“I understand concerns about reports that the Eisenhower family is not supportive of the monument design, but I do believe it is important for all Members to be informed about the design and the controversy before taking a position on the issue,” Simpson said.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the National Parks subpanel, agreed that he “need[s] to hold back” in advance of the hearing. 

Ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) added that he saw his role as that of an arbiter among the disputing parties.

He also hopes Congress will not have to resort to legislation to resolve differences that might be difficult to reconcile.

“I hope we can mitigate and get the sides to work together,” Grijalva said. “I think once we start legislating and directing to the commission, then the unraveling we are worried about is going to happen.”

Roberts, a senior member of the commission, also suggested to Roll Call that he hopes Congress keeps its input limited.

“The House has several committees that are interested in this, but the end result will be the commission that makes the final decision,” he said.

Too Many Cooks?

Not all lawmakers on the National Parks subcommittee or the Eisenhower Memorial Commission are heeding the advice to stay on the sidelines.

Moran told Roll Call he likes the proposed memorial concept: “I like it from a Kansas point of view by portraying Dwight Eisenhower as a Kansan, a young Kansan.”

Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), who serves on the subcommittee, went the other way: “I’m not overly impressed with it right now.”

In light of these conversations, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has requested a delay in the April 5 meeting it had originally scheduled with the NCPC, indicating that the process of reaching an agreement on the design will be drawn out.

“We want to make sure we give a chance for the family’s input to be heard, and for different members to have an opportunity to hear from us,” said Carl Reddel, the commission’s executive director.

A halt in immediate consideration by the NCPC also means lawmakers will have an extended opportunity to weigh in on the design, especially as the hearing is likely to create a broader awareness of the issue on Capitol Hill.

But Reddel said he welcomed continued Congressional feedback. In fact, he says, it’s what Eisenhower would have wanted.

“Eisenhower was exceptional among all presidents for his respect for Congress and its people,” Reddel explained. For Congress to be involved, he added, “is appropriate.”

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