Who knew it could be so difficult to build one little monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Congressman Rob Bishop, that's who.
The Utah Republican has spent much of the year locked in something of a tussle with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission over plans for a fitting, permanent tribute in Washington, D.C., honoring the former general and president.
But as the process bogs down, Bishop is taking it all in stride.
"I don't think there's ever been a monument that hasn't been fraught with controversy," he said in a recent telephone interview with the Standard-Examiner. "But that doesn't mean we don't do it the right way and get a consensus on this."
An Eisenhower memorial was commissioned by Congress in 1999. The winning design was unveiled in 2010, created by well-known architect Frank Gehry, who designed iconic structures like the Guggenheim Museum in Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Shortly thereafter, criticism began to build. Too expensive, too expansive, too fragile, too "out there." Too much this, too little that.
Today, Bishop says the current monument plans have gotten out of hand, and he wants to hit the reset button on the whole process.
Getting a Gehry
Bishop insists he didn't go looking for this fight over the proposed Eisenhower memorial. As chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, the project falls under his subcommittee.
"The only reason I'm involved in this is, I'm chairman of Public Lands, so it was kind of thrown at me," he said.
Bishop is also quick to point out that he's no art critic and isn't basing his objections on the aesthetics.
"I am not qualified to make a judgment based on the artistic merits of the design," he said. "But cost and lack of accountability -- and lack of process -- that's the greatest concern to me."
Regarding that process, Bishop believes the memorial commission didn't follow proper procedures -- "knowing all the while they wanted a Frank Gehry."
"They wanted a Frank Gehry with an Eisenhower theme, not a monument to Eisenhower," Bishop said.
In March, Bishop introduced legislation to scrap the current design, disband the current commission and begin the process anew.
That move got some folks thinking that Bishop doesn't particularly care for Eisenhower. Utah native L. Ralph Mecham is one such person.
Mecham, an adviser to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, calls Bishop's legislation a "negative bill" and wonders why, if Bishop has a problem with the memorial, he doesn't just work with the commission to address those concerns.
Mecham refers to Eisenhower as "the greatest American leader since President Lincoln."
He also calls him "the best friend to Utah of any president in history." What's more, Mecham says, the current chairman of the memorial commission is Rocco Siciliano, another Utahn.
"It is an anomaly, therefore, that a distinguished Utah congressman should appear in the press to be the leading foe of a memorial to recognize General and President Eisenhower's greatness," Mecham wrote in an Aug. 14 letter to Bishop.
Mecham believes the current Gehry design is a fitting tribute to the man.
In a separate letter to Bishop, dated May 18, 2013, Mecham wrote: "Many involved, I believe, consider that your bill would effectively end the memorialization of President and General Eisenhower. I am not sure that this is your intent but it will obviously have a major impact and, if enacted, would cause considerable delay at the very least."
Delay, and cost. Mecham says the bill would effectively "unduly" waste the $40 million already spent to develop the current memorial proposal.
And recently, the Congressional Budget Office said it would cost an additional $17 million to start over with a new commission.
Bishop disputes that finding, saying the CBO simply got the $17 million figure from the current commission.
"That irked me," Bishop said of the CBO. "They asked the commission to tell them how much it would cost to replace the commission."
Mecham also calls the bill an "unusual, if not improper or illegal, arrangement with Susan Eisenhower." Susan Eisenhower is the granddaughter of President Eisenhower and has acted as spokeswoman for the family.
In his Aug. 14 letter, Mecham wrote: "It seems to me that you and your House committee should look into the legality, propriety and wisdom of all these arrangements made by your committee and the federal government to support and accommodate Susan Eisenhower and some other members of her family particularly since she and perhaps other relations are personally enriched. There should be an accounting."
Mecham says he stands by that claim.
"What I said in the letter was factually accurate," Mecham, who lives in the D.C. area, said in a recent telephone interview with the Standard-Examiner. "Clearly, (Susan Eisenhower) has been lining her pockets."
Mecham later clarified: "I do think Susan Eisenhower is profiting from this, but it's nothing that's illegal."
However, he believes Bishop is trying to give Susan Eisenhower "veto power" over any proposed monument, and wonders what connections Bishop has with the Eisenhower family.
Bishop dismissed the implication, saying the only connection he has with the Eisenhowers is that "the family is critical of the design, and I'm sympathetic to their concerns."
Bishop said if the selection process were done properly, he would have no objections to the Gehry design.
"If they start again and select the same design? Good. Go for it," Bishop said.
He said he's not trying to block a memorial to Eisenhower, calling the man a personal hero of his.
"He was the president just after I was born. He was the first president I remember as a little boy."
The congressman says he is so taken with Eisenhower that he has busts of the man in both his home and his office.
Asked just how many busts of famous Americans he owns, Bishop replied: "Does a bobble head of Dwight from 'The Office' count?"
Bishop also believes a new design could be built for much less than the price tag of somewhere well north of $100 million for the current memorial.
He referred to the planned monument as "one of the most expensive things that has been done in Washington." About $60 million has already been allocated by Congress.
"It's starting on that path (to being the most expensive)," Bishop said. "As far as a memorial goes, it's well on that path. Frank Gehry is not a cheap architect."
As an example, Bishop said the commission created a tabletop model of the memorial that cost $1 million.
"This is tremendously expensive stuff."
'Cut our losses'
Bishop said his ties to Eisenhower are as strong as any American's, but that "what I want is a fitting memorial to the man, not just something that spends money."
Bishop believes this is what his proposed legislation does.
"I'm saying, 'Look, before all the money is gone, let's start with a new commission and start the process over.' What's already been spent -- it runs in my mind around $40 million -- I'm saying before we spend the other $20 million, let's cut our losses."
Bishop believes loss-cutting might be precisely what's happening of late. He said it's quite telling that the budget for the memorial has been "zeroed out," and that President Barack Obama recently appointed Bruce Cole -- a vocal critic of the current Gehry design -- to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
And in the latest sign of rough sledding ahead, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission canceled last week's scheduled appearance before the National Capital Planning Commission to seek approval for the memorial, citing a need to address concerns from the planning commission.
Mecham continues to maintain that Bishop's legislation is ill-conceived.
"What Congressman Bishop did was excessive," he told the Standard-Examiner.
"Maybe he favors a monument. If so, he hasn't said so. ... But the effect of this bill is to gut the monument."
Contact reporter Mark Saal at 801-625-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/mark.saal.