WASHINGTON -- To the alabaster immortals of the American capital -- Abraham Lincoln in his armchair, Thomas Jefferson on his pedestal, Martin Luther King, Jr. emerging, stern-faced from a solid slab of stone -- the world's most famous and infamous architect proposes to add a very different sort of statue: a peach-faced prairie lad.
The project is a new memorial to be raised directly across the avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The subject, the late five-star general and 34th president, Dwight David Eisenhower, is to be rendered as a farmer's son at the age of 14, shoeless, circa 1904. And the controversy the blueprint has touched off is typical of a city in which what Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory" are doomed to become the tool of temporal politics.
At first glance, the proposed Eisenhower shrine would seem as benign and cheering as a Kansas sunflower -- Outward sunshine, inward joy: "Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!" in the poet Whittier's words. In fact, on one triumphant return home to the town of Abilene, Ike himself invoked "the dreams of a barefoot boy" and noted "no man is really a man who has left out of himself all the boy." But in Washington, the making of a monument to this great general and perhaps-great president has become the stuff of mockery and condemnation, praise and veneration, from confused descendants, proud old warriors, and a strangulated bureaucracy.
That the designer is Frank Gehry, né Goldberg -- the Canadian-American genius of tumbled forms and defiant dissonance, himself a U.S. army veteran from Eisenhower's peacetime presidency -- and that his preliminary sketches have been decried as evoking Marxist-Leninist cultism and the walls of Dachau by the grandchildren of the very man whom he has been selected to honour, raises the tempest to Category 5.
Eisenhower's ascendancy from the flatlands encapsulated the myth of the agrarian, egalitarian republic the Founding Fathers envisioned, a rise unlikely to be echoed in this age of rule by the One Per Cent. Today, only a fading few remember him as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces who marshaled a disparate legion of Yanks and Canucks and Limeys and Reds, et alia, to victory in the Second World War, or later as the round-faced Republican chief executive who presided over the epoch of Sputniks, Edsels and Elvis with a putter in his hands, H-bombs in his silos and a plain-Jane wife named Mamie.
But in a hearing room last Tuesday at the United States Senate, as a scale model of Gehry's newest incarnation of the proposed memorial is unveiled for the perusal of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission of senators, representatives, and historians, Ike's ghost is palpable.
It has been several months since granddaughters Anne, Susan, and Mary Jean Eisenhower blasted Gehry's barefoot-boy iconography as demeaning and unrepresentative of their grandfather's legacy of war and peace, and declared the architect's soaring metallic tapestries, which are meant to set the memorial off from the hideous Department of Education building behind it, reminded them of the iron gates of one of the Nazi concentration camps that Ike's troops and nurses liberated. David Eisenhower, Ike's grandson (and Richard Nixon's son-in-law), abruptly resigned from the committee last winter. Today, the chairs reserved for "Eisenhower Family Members" are conspicuously empty.
We learn, first, that Mr. Gehry is unable to be with us, being committed to a performance of Don Giovanni in Los Angeles. (He designed the sets.) He does, however, send us a letter that reaffirms his commitment to the statue of the barefoot boy that the Eisenhower filles so stridently have decried, notes that hundreds of thousands of school children visit Air and Space every year, and predicts that the teenager's effigy, even glimpsed from across the street, "will be an inspiration to these kids."
"I would be proud to wear an 'I like Ike' button every day for the rest of my life," Frank Gehry writes. "He represents what we should all try to be."
And he adds, almost pleadingly: "I have brought all of my talents to bear on this memorial."
But there are compromises. Instead of gigantic bas-reliefs of Ike's military and political triumphs, Gehry now proposes a pair of more conventional statues, one-and-a-half-times life-size. One is to show the commandant addressing his men on the eve of D-Day. The other will reproduce Yousef Karsh's portrait of Eisenhower as The Elder Statesman, with one strong hand resting on a globe of the surly Earth. The 14-year-old child who was father to the man will stand between them, five feet small.
Above the sculptures, Frank Gehry proposes to inscribe an Eisenhower quotation:
EVERY GUN THAT IS MADE, EVERY WARSHIP LAUNCHED, EVERY ROCKET SIGNIFIES, IN THE FINAL SENSE, A THEFT FROM THOSE WHO HUNGER AND ARE NOT FED, THOSE WHO ARE COLD AND ARE NOT CLOTHED.
Clearly, the commissioners, who have been at the task of memorializing Dwight D. Eisenhower for almost 13 years, seem eager to vote "Aye" and start digging. None is more impatient than Sen. Daniel Inouye, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his superhuman courage and fortitude as a second lieutenant in Eisenhower's army in Tuscany in 1945. (Shot through the stomach, and with his right hand and forearm hanging by tendons, the Japanese-Hawaiian routed a nest of two dozen Nazis before he collapsed from loss of blood.)
At 87, Daniel Inouye, a Democrat who has represented Hawaii in the House and then the Senate since it achieved statehood in 1959, is four years older than Frank Gehry. (He already has announced he will seek re-election in 2016 at the age of 92.) When it is his turn to speak, he estimates with evident sadness that barely one quarter of today's young Americans have any knowledge of the Second World War, of D-Day or of Pearl Harbor, where he himself was serving on Dec. 7, 1941.
"America has one weakness," the veteran says. "We seem to forget soon."
When the hearing ends, I venture forward to speak to Sen. Inouye, a man whom I have wanted to meet for many years. Our moment is brief; a floor vote awaits him. He tells me that, when he first came to Washington, 95 of 100 senators had worn a military uniform. Today, it is a mere handful, testimony to the ability of rich men's sons and diffident intellectuals to avoid war altogether.
"Americans should be thankful that their ancestors gave so much, not just in dollars but in blood," the hero tells me.
"If we don't remind the next generation what Americans had to go through, it's going to be forgotten."
"What is lost when a nation forgets its own history?" I ask.
"If we do forget," Daniel Inouye says, "Then I will only predict that there will be no America."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.