George Will spells my name correctly four times in his piece on Dwight D. Eisenhower and the plans for a Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower memorial just south of the National Mall. Will reads my piece correctly—especially my emphasis on how Gehry’s memorial breaks with past tradition—but he disagrees with my basic premise. I think Gehry’s design is powerful because it leaves its subject open to interpretation, because it celebrates the youth and potential of the man rather than the final accomplishment, and because it breaks with the traditional vocabulary of absolute hero worship that is deployed in almost all memorials. I think its lack of determinacy (which builds on a similar idea by Maya Lin without Lin’s abstraction and silence) is a major step forward for memorial design. Not Will:
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.
Cancel all memorials. Not a bad plan, in fact. We have enough, and we are building them too quickly, too soon after the event or the death of the person memorialized. We need a moratorium, and Will almost seems to call for one in his last sentence:
[Eisenhower’s] memory should not be buried beneath a grandiose memorial that contributes only to the worsening clutter on and around the Mall.
I’d love to know more about this last thought of Will’s. I agree entirely with Will’s sense that that Mall is becoming cluttered, though I don’t think Gehry’s memorial is grandiose at all. Rather, I think it is admirably ambivalent. But if the question is not what the Eisenhower memorial should like, but rather, should it be built near the Mall, I wonder if Will and I might be in at least partial agreement.