By George F. Will, Published: February 17
Two coming developments, one dismal and one excellent, pertain to America’s memory of a great man. One of several oversight panels soon will consider a proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. The proposal is an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president. Fortunately, on Tuesday comes Jean Edward Smith’s biography “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” which demonstrates why the man’s achievements merit a memorial better than the proposed one.
Filling four acres across Independence Avenue from the National Mall, the memorial will have a colonnade of huge limestone-clad columns from which will hang 80-foot stainless-steel mesh “tapestries” depicting images evocative of Eisenhower’s Kansas youth. And almost as an afterthought, there will be a statue of Eisenhower — as a boy.
Philip Kennicott, The Post’s cultural critic, says that the statue suggests Eisenhower “both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.”
Failings? A memorial is not an exhaustive assessment, it is a celebration of a preponderance of greatness.
Kennicott praises Gehry’s project because it allows visitors “space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.” But memorials are not seminars, they are reminders that a person esteemed by the nation lived and is worth learning more about.
Kennicott says that Gehry’s project acknowledges that “few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings.” Good grief. If Ike, with all his defects, was not great, cancel the memorial.
Kennicott celebrates the “relatively small representation of Eisenhower” because “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped.” How sweetly democratic: Greatness can be tapped hither and yon. But if greatness is so abundant and assured, it is hardly greatness, so cancel all memorials.
So far, the best remembrance of Eisenhower is Smith’s superb biography of one of three Americans (with Washington and Grant) who were world figures before becoming president. Eisenhower entered the White House having dealt with such demanding military men as John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall, then FDR, Churchill, Stalin (Eisenhower was the only foreigner ever to stand alongside Stalin atop Lenin’s tomb), de Gaulle and others in the excruciatingly complex task of conducting coalition warfare with the largest multinational force ever assembled.