Skip to comments.I Still Like Ike
Posted on 12/14/2012 6:52:45 AM PST by Kaslin
Ordinarily, the news that a long overdue memorial to an historic American leader has been put on hold still again would come as a disappointment. But if you've seen the innocuous design for an Eisenhower memorial in the nation's capitol, the news may come as a relief -- and a welcome opportunity to start all over and try to get it right this time.
Innocuous doesn't begin to cover the emptiness, the blahness, the pomp meaninglessness of Frank Gehry's design for this "monument" that is the opposite of monumental. It's just a few saplings around what looks like an empty neighborhood playground in any interchangeable midwestern suburb circa the 1960s. A cross between a no-place, to borrow Walker Percy's perfect phrase for so much of America's forgettable urban landscape, and the non-style dubbed the International Style -- an enclosed blankness.
Oh, yes, there are a few disjointed quotations from the real Eisenhower clunked onto the design like random afterthoughts to lend it a bogus authenticity, and a statue of the accomplished general, under-estimated statesman and smiling national leader as ... a Kansas farm boy.
I'd call the design Disneyish except that it lacks even that much character. Believe it or not, this disconnected, spaced-out blob of a little park is supposed to have something to do with honoring an American who was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen in his time. Which was the 1950s, the Age of Cool, when understatement was in fashion, displays of emotion were out, and political rhetoric was supposed to be as slim as the neckties.
But this design for an Eisenhower "memorial" betrays no memory of either the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater or the president who ended another war, the forgotten one in Korea, and kept a Cold War from getting hot. And who had the good sense not to get in the way of an American economic revival that would jump-start the world's after the Second World Devastation.
Where is that Eisenhower in what is supposed to be an Eisenhower memorial? Where is the Ike we remember? There's not a trace of him.
Here was a general who could get prima donnas like Patton and Monty and DeGaulle working together, using their talents just when and where they were most needed and not otherwise. Then he would come home to reunify a bitterly divided country and deal with the Joe McCarthys and Orval Faubuses and J. William Fulbrights so deftly and effectively it looked as if he were doing nothing at all.
Ike knew when to let actions speak louder than words. As on June 6, 1944, aka D-Day. And on September 25, 1957, when the 101st Airborne appeared again, this time at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and in American history. Ike also knew when and how to say absolutely nothing at length, and let there be peace. In that sense, he was a worthy successor to American soldier-statesmen in the mold of U.S. Grant and George Marshall.
Murray Kempton, a now almost forgotten newspaper columnist of the Eisenhower Era, wrote exquisite prose that revealed a fine, discriminating mind. (Yes, even if he was a newspaper columnist, hard as that is to believe in these post-William F. Buckley days.) And when Ike's critics called the old general inarticulate, Kempton couldn't resist pointing out that he was "inarticulate like a fox."
There was something irresistibly simple about both Eisenhower the general and Eisenhower the president. Or maybe he just appeared simple, a much more valuable political talent. It disarmed even his critics. He could boil down both strategic and political issues to their core, reach a conclusion, and then stick with it. How rare in the fickle world of high-stakes, ever-fluid politics. Call it constancy of purpose.
Unlike today's headliners, the man had an instinctive aversion to the pretentious, the glib, the clever, the theatical. No one would ever have mistaken him for some kind of flashy intellectual. It was said that when his speechwriter gave Ike a first draft, the first thing he did was go through it and strike out any phrases that might prove memorable. It's a wonder Emmet Hughes' warning about the dangers presented by a growing "military-industrial complex" survived his boss' editing; it may be the one quotable phrase Ike ever committed in a presidential address. Then there was that broad, trademark grin of his, which almost guaranteed that everybody would like Ike. And, more important, trust him.
Eisenhower does present a difficult question for historians: Was he better at cutting straight through some Gordian Knot, as in his panic-free response when the Germans broke through the Bulge in Allied lines? Or at defusing crises as the post-war leader of the free world? One who led so unnoticeably in his avuncular way that no one seemed to notice he had avoided World War III. There's no hint of any of that in this memorial without a memory.
This amnesiac memorial is the product of Frank Gehry, who has uglified the world's urban landscape from Bilbao to Seattle with designs that look like botched abdominal operations, what with their dissected intestines and tubes twisting in every direction. Something out of a surgeon's recurring nightmare. At least now he's produced something completely unmemorable, which for him is a step up.
Now the Great Gehry has designed a "monument" that doesn't have enough character even to be ugly. It could be one of those mass-produced, pre-fabbed Edward Durrell Stone designs of the 1960s with screens to mask its nothingness. This design for an Eisenhower "memorial" perpetuates and magnifies the essential mistake of the FDR memorial, a collection of politically correct effigies of Franklin D. Roosevelt at different stages of his life. A kind of park full of big dolls for us little people to wander around in. Unlike the great monuments -- the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument -- today's mod memorials diffuse the viewer's attention rather than focusing it.
The best of recent memorials -- Maya Lin's perfect Vietnam War memorial -- transcends the bitter divisions over that terrible sacrifice of lives, and unites us all in common sorrow, reverence, and gratitude for these honored dead. Yet even that work of art and memory had to be cluttered at the edges with some needless statuary and a little flagpole or two.
There is no design so simple and moving that some unimaginative, literal-minded critics won't find a way to disimprove it. Usually by adding completely superfluous curlicues. Or maybe a group of realistic sculptures to break up its abstract flow. At the Vietnam Memorial, tens of thousands of light-filled American names float forever on its sloping walls, whose dark surface reflects the images of the living who are just passing through like so many ghosts-to-be.
At least there's no way to disimprove this design for an Eisenhower memorial. Because there's nothing there to make better or worse. It's in the spirit of a spiritless age. And of an America that has grown suspicious of greatness or any national celebration of it. No wonder the Eisenhower family objected to this empty but expensive design, which is cluttered with symbols and at the same time manages to say nothing, nothing at all.
The major-domo of this whole, mishandled project is one Rocco Siciliano, a minor functionary in the Eisenhower White House who now is chairman of the commission in charge of planning this memorial. A fine Italian hand is the last thing one would associate with him; he's more a blunt instrument personified. Dismissing any objections from the Eisenhower family or anybody else, Mr. Siciliano announced: "I am one person who feels competent to say that he believes President Eisenhower would be most pleased as to what the present commissioners have unanimously accepted."
Goodness. It was clear enough that Chairman Siciliano was an insufferable little popinjay, but not that he was also in contact with the spirit world. Ike's son, Major John Eisenhower, could only describe himself as "astonished" at Mr. Siciliano's fatuous claim. But anyone familiar with both the pretension of bureaucrats and how little basis there is for it can't have been surprised, let alone astonished. The smaller and sillier the man, the bigger and stranger his claims. The commission in charge of the Eisenhower memorial seems to have found in its chairman the perfect un-Eisenhower.
Here is the Wall’s website:
It has a feature called “Search the Wall”, so you can see if any of the names in your “yearbook” correspond and where on the Wall they are located.
Ike was a philosophical conservative but an operational liberal. He did though understand how liberal the public really is.
There were three recessions in the Ike years, 1954, which led to a Democrat Congress, 1957, which led to a 2-1 Democrat Congress, and 1960, which led to Kennedy-Johnson.
Dapper Warrior Tom Wolfe’s remarks about the Wall being “a tribute to Jane Fonda” are faintly ridiculous,and read like the overstated hollow bravado they are, but I can somewhat see that point of view, as I can yours. Remembering back that far, I can even recall my own ambivalent feeling about it, for just those reasons: that it was exceptionally grave, and almost functioned like a literal dark grave or a two dimensional mausoleum of names-only stretching over hundreds of feet of space.I did not know about Lin’s objections to the
statue and the flag that were added nearby several years later, but I doubt it was because of some nebulous and unprovable “anti-Americanism\” on her part. More likely a typical designer/architect’s not wanting her design to be broken up or offset by anything which might whack it out of aesthetic balance. I do remember Ross Perot’s distaste over it, and wasn’t he the one who proposed the separate tableaus depicting the three servicemen or the nurse attending to injured soldiers? Memorials like this, with these aesthetics are always going to be controversial, precisely because they break the traditional mold , which favors things like the statues you mentioned.The facts about the Vietnam War are something we should be mindful of,which was that it was started and “perfected” by a leftist American President of the New Deal/FDR type, grew under his “watchful eye” from ‘64 to’68 to the point where the incoming Republican President wound up taking even longer to end it. LBJ, who thought he could wage a war in Vietnam, while he undertook a schizophrenic and thoroughly wasteful “War on Poverty” during the same years, as if to compensate or offset the tragedy that was Vietnam.Throughout were still reeling from the deplorable treatment that Veterans got from so many on returning home,but the fact that it seems that more “Liberals” seemed to favor the Wall than “Conservatives” is equally irrelevant to the abiding fact that the ongoing reaction to it is fluid, ever-changing, just like we are. It will be viewed and experienced differently as we move through time and learn more about ourselves and the “leaders”, who involved us in things like that war. We “live and learn”, and that’s what
we owe to those who died, and who cannot learn.
And by the way, I understand why you feel it screams “look at all those dead soldiers”-—some can’t get past that overwhelming impression of it.But what it means is as complex and conflicted as the emotions of all those viewing it, and it hardly matters what Maya Lin’s politics might have been as a 21 year old, or anyone else’s (and I’m sure you won’t find many sniveling America-haters spending much time at the wall, then or now. Those are not people who know anything about coping with loss, or respect those who are forced to cope with it.Indeed, the Wall might work some reverse magic on THOSE people if they were mature enough to open themselves to it and witness the real emotions of the people who come and keep coming to the Wall.
I hope whoever reads my words reads them twice.
Thank you for such a thoughtful response. We’re really not that far apart—especially on much of the futility of a war half-fought. But the memorial was meant to honor those who fought the war, not those who ordained it nor the wisdom of the decision to wage it. Those who fought it deserved far better than to have been osmosed into an opinion of the war that damned its warriors along with all its malconceived strategies. It’s no accident that Jan Scruggs, frequently cited as one of the veteran-proponents for the memorial, had been a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the group mysteriously became (and broadened into) Vietnam Veterans of America. Even if Scruggs took no part in the former group’s treachery, he certainly had no problem aligning himself with it in the late 60s/early 70s.
This isn’t the first time I’ve looked for Wolfe’s Washington Post full-page article on the wall. It’s well worth the read and far more edifying than the Post’s gloss (”a tribute to Jane Fonda’). “Dapper warrior” aside, he’d already written rather extensively on modern art and the slightly more significant nonsense peddled by the Left. The wall not only incorporated both Wolfe specialties, it soldered them together. But the fact that I detest it doesn’t mean that I despise those who find solace or awe in a visit. On the contrary, they’ve supplied the dignity, grace, and integrity the wall was never meant to reflect, no doubt a great disappointment to the original selection panel.
Thanks for that, and yes we are not that far apart.
I was not really surprised that the “tribute to Jane Fonda”
thing was actually a “gloss” on what they took to be Wolfe’s
overall message. Newspapers, especially ones like WaPo always do that, and it’s dishonest. Wolfe is a far smarter guy, and one of the first of an earlier generation to “stylishly” attack the Left’s conceits, starting with his takedown of the equally stylish “progressive” nonsense anatomized in “Radical Chic”.
Gotta run, leaving for a trip to Pennsylvania, where we’ve been invited to a Christmas cookie-baking “competition” at a friends. My cookie will be Chocolate chip with pistachios and orange zest flavoring. from the Gamine dans la cuisine website.
Have fun—those cookies sound spectacular.
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