It took Dwight D. Eisenhower a little more than a year to plan and execute Operation Overlord, the largest military invasion in history and the turning point of World War II. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Congress, architect Frank Gehry and the Eisenhower family have been planning the memorial to the 34th president and supreme allied commander since 1999, and it’s still on the drawing board.
Passing the gavel to Sen. Pat Roberts might help the commission win federal approvals needed to shift the long-stalled project out of neutral. But even as the commission is set to install the Kansas Republican as its chairman at a meeting Wednesday in the Capitol, Congress remains a hard sell.
The current plan for a Southwest Washington park framed by 80-foot columns and a stainless steel tapestry has gained traction, with preliminary approvals from the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. But a behind-the-scenes lobby by Eisenhower’s grandchildren against the design will also factor into upcoming funding decisions that are crucial to breaking ground.
Though everyone seems to agree Washington needs a memorial to the 34th president and World War II hero, appropriators did not include any funding for construction in the current fiscal year. The EMC requested an additional $68 million for construction and $2 million for operations in fiscal 2016, but some members of Congress have said they want to see consensus from the Eisenhower family before they will fund the project.
EMC Chairman Rocco Siciliano set change in motion with an April 7 letter to commissioners announcing he was resigning his leadership role but remaining on the 11-member panel. “It has been a positive six months for the Eisenhower Memorial,” Siciliano noted, before encouraging Roberts’ bid to succeed him. “Steady progress is being made to move through the remaining issues and receive final approval from both of these agencies in May or June.”
The senator sent an email the following day thanking Siciliano for his confidence, and suggested new movement on persuading the Eisenhowers to back the plan. “I am pleased to tell you that as a result of recent conversations with the Eisenhower family, David Eisenhower has advised me the Eisenhower family will support the current design and they support the completion and dedication of the memorial to their grandfather,” Roberts said. David Eisenhower resigned from the EMC in 2011.
But CQ Roll Call has learned that in the three weeks since news of the leadership shakeup, the Eisenhower family has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to reiterate their criticism about Gehry’s design and the process by which Gehry was selected. The former president’s granddaughters, Anne and Susan Eisenhower, have publicly requested a simpler design.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who plays a role in the approval process as an ex-officio member of NCPC, met with the Eisenhowers last week. The Utah Republican plans to keep an eye on alleged problems at EMC, said spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin, such as flawed budgeting and mismanagement of taxpayer resources. Congress has appropriated more than $46 million for the project since its authorization in 1999.
Chaffetz “remains very concerned about a number of different aspects pertaining to the Eisenhower Memorial, but again [it’s] important to note that he remains very committed to ensuring that we do build a monument to President Eisenhower,” Subbotin said.
Chaffetz will send staff to the EMC’s Wednesday meeting on the second floor of the Capitol, where Roberts will almost certainly be elected chairman. In advance of the meeting, critics of the Gehry design offered different outlooks on the architect’s proposed changes.
Commissioner Bruce Cole, an art historian who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001 to 2009, and was appointed to the EMC by President Barack Obama in 2013, called it “status quo” and “empty.”
Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said he was happy to see new leadership and advocates a new design chosen through a competition. Shubow suggested Roberts’ promotion could be “a great opportunity to change direction.”
Wednesday will also mark the first meeting Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., has attended. The freshman senator was appointed to the EMC in March to fill one of two vacancies created when Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., resigned last fall.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., sounded optimistic about Roberts’ chairmanship in an April 24 opinion piece published by the Washington Post.
“Ike’s memorial is moving forward in all the right ways,” Dole said. “It was recently announced that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission will soon have a new chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts from my home state of Kansas. Roberts, a longtime member of the commission, is the right man to lead the memorial toward completion. The time to deliberate is over. All we need now is for Congress to fund the National Eisenhower Memorial.”