Fight Over Eisenhower Memorial

Posted March 20, 2012 at 6:44pm

Congress jumped into the dispute over the design for a national memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower on Tuesday, with one key lawmaker threatening the project’s funding.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, told Roll Call that he would recommend withholding further funding for the project until a Congressionally appointed group can work together.

After a hearing his panel held on the issue Tuesday, Bishop cited a lack of consensus among the 11 members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission on how to proceed.

“They are asking in very difficult times to put money into this project,” Bishop said of the commission, which has received federal funds every year since 1999, when legislation authorizing the construction of a memorial to the president and war hero was enacted. “I want to make sure that if the money goes into this project, that they come up with something we can be proud of.”

Consensus among Members was just as hard to find at Tuesday’s hearing.

Subcommittee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has expressed concern from the onset of the dispute that Congress runs the risk of “micromanaging” by inserting itself into what he sees as an argument between the commission and the Eisenhower family.

“I don’t think this subcommittee, the full committee or Congress is an appropriate place to mitigate a memorial design or a potential family dispute,” he said.

The hearing was called in the wake of a public airing of grievances by members of the Eisenhower family, who argue that the design unanimously approved last year by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and envisioned by renowned architect Frank Gehry does not appropriately reflect Eisenhower’s legacy.

Gehry’s design — until recently on track for groundbreaking this year — would have as a centerpiece a statute of a young Eisenhower gazing up at bas-relief depictions of what his life would become.

“One of the main flaws of the current proposal … is that Eisenhower’s contribution to this nation is not the central theme of the design,” said Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter and the author of a biography of her grandmother, first lady Mamie Eisenhower.

Open to Changes

Some witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing debated the artistic merits of Gehry’s design, but lawmakers focused on whether the commission had selected Gehry from a broad enough pool of applicants, consulted all relevant parties on the concept and generally operated in a transparent fashion.

Susan Eisenhower not only said the design should be tossed out, but she suggested that the commission should be required to “undergo a top-down review” of its management practices and
stakeholder policies.

Representatives from the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that sees Gehry’s design as incoherent and inappropriate, also called for an alternative design and accused the commission of working without enough input from the outside.

“The entire process has flown under the radar with as little public — and as little Congressional — knowledge as possible,” said Howard Segermark, chairman emeritus and director of the National Civic Art Society.

Eisenhower Memorial Commission Executive Director Carl Reddel emphasized that he wanted to work with the Eisenhower family to find common ground and, as a token of that commitment, said he postponed a meeting with the National Capital Planning
Commission that would have taken the project a step closer to completion.

A letter from Gehry saying he was open to making changes was entered into the record at Tuesday’s hearing.

Bishop concluded the nearly two-hour hearing by conceding the challenges he and his colleagues face — Congress has a role to play, eight lawmakers sit on the 11-member memorial commission, but Congress as a whole is an unwieldy instrument with which to shepherd a national memorial from start to finish.

“I certainly hope [the eight] have some expertise in this area,” Bishop said, “otherwise, we’re all screwed.”