Exploding costs, backroom deals have derailed Eisenhower Memorial

Friday , August 28, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Guest commentary

This newspaper’s recent editorial urging Congress to build architect Frank Gehry’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial does not address how a tribute to a popular, unifying president became the focus of divisive public controversy. The omission obscures the crucial role of an unelected federal commission that won’t reconsider a too-controversial and too-expensive design, despite the fact that amidst widespread public objections lawmakers in Congress have refused to fund this design for three years. Lawmakers including Utah representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz are right to call for redesigning a memorial that has fallen so badly out of step with the legacy it is supposed to commemorate.

Eisenhower was a leader who fought and governed through democratic consensus-building, a strategy that allowed the potentially fractious Allies to carry off the largest amphibious invasion in history and Eisenhower himself to win two presidential elections by wide margins. His balancing of the federal budget three times, while providing constant warnings about the abusive potential of unelected bureaucrats, shows his vigilance over the public purse.

Yet the effort to memorialize Eisenhower has been characterized by a less-than-public process that prevented consensus and runaway spending without accountability that promises to make this the most expensive presidential memorial ever. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission departed drastically from the standard public process for designing national memorials, through competitions that are open to everyone and that consider anonymously submitted design ideas. Instead it turned to a government program that seeks designers, not designs, which was overturned as undemocratic the only other time it was tried for a national memorial. The designer the commission chose has close personal and professional relations with the chairman who oversaw his selection process, and it turns out the commission also manipulated established selection criteria in a way that benefited the chosen designer.

A record of finishing projects on time and on budget was one of the criteria that was de-emphasized during the selection process, and the delays and cost overruns that have led to controversy over the current design follow a similar pattern in this architect’s past work. So a memorial that was expected to cost $65 million to complete is now expected to cost $142 million, and its original completion date of 2007 has now been extended to 2017. Meanwhile the architect’s own firm has already received or been committed nearly $20 million, a figure well in excess of industry standards which the architect has tried to downplay by claiming that he personally accepted no compensation.

It is only through Rep. Bishop’s own vigilance over the public purse that these damning facts have come to public light. Last summer the House committee he chairs published the findings of its investigation into the activities of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in a publicly available report called, “A Five-Star Folly.” That report shows how President Eisenhower’s memorial became the object of precisely the kind of bureaucratic abuse of power and public money he warned against.

Senator Bob Dole’s urging that we bring the product of a very flawed process to completion misses the larger point that a memorial that doesn’t reflect Ike’s legacy can damage that legacy. Nor is Eisenhower’s memorial for past or present generations so much as future ones, who need to know who he was and what he did a century after the “Greatest Generation” has passed.

To get the Eisenhower Memorial right will require a new, more public design process along the standard lines for national memorials—exactly what representatives Bishop and Chaffetz are trying to bring about.

Congressional action is what it will take to wrest the Eisenhower Memorial from the intransigent commission that’s made a mess of it. These actions need your support, as it is ultimately for the public to say how President Eisenhower should be commemorated, and through its representatives in Congress that it must speak.

Sam Roche writes on architecture and urban planning and taught at the University of Miami School of Architecture from 2010 to 2013. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial, at www.rightbyike.org.

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