Profound Questions: How Exactly Should We Like Ike?
Originally published May 1, 2012
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Even before George Washington strategically retreated to the afterlife in 1799, people were considering stashing his corpse in the basement of the future Capitol. It was wisely decided that this was unspeakably creepy, but it took decades to settle on the right tribute. Pyramids, Santeria shrines, national choreographed dance routines -- nothing seemed right. Finally, an Army engineer named Thomas Casey just cut through the bureaucratic crap and completed a plain, 500-foot phallus. In 1884.
Generations later, we're not much better at determining tributes to our dictator-whupping presidents. Dwight Eisenhower extended his supply lines to heaven in 1969, Congress recently decided to give him a D.C. monument just off the National Mall, and everyone has been pissed off since. How exactly are we supposed to like Ike?
If you missed the news, design duties for the memorial were awarded to Frank Gehry, the Tim Burton of architects. He came up with a statue of a Kansas farm boy Eisenhower staring at a plaza of various images from his future. Large "tapestries" show Kansas scenes. The design avoids the obvious -- say, a statue of Ike kneeing Hitler in the groin -- and evokes the treasured delusion of anybody being able to accomplish anything. A lot of people, including the Eisenhower family, hate it and want a new plan.
And they might have a point, because America already has a monument rooted in the Eisenhower boyhood. It's in Abilene, Kan., and it was established by Dwight Eisenhower. When their mother died in the 1940s, the Eisenhower brothers made sure to preserve their boyhood home as a museum to their parents. It is a very tiny house that held eight people, and anyone who could figure out a bathroom schedule in such a situation could clearly plan an invasion of Western Europe with little difficulty.
America even has a monument for adult Eisenhower. Around World War I, Ike was a commander at Camp Colt near Gettysburg, Pa.; he lived out a steampunk pipe dream, re-enacting Pickett's Charge with tanks. He later returned to the area to buy the only permanent home of his life, and that cattle ranch has been chronologically laminated to preserve its early 1960s vibe. The house has presidential mementos, radiation-spouting TV sets and Ike's original paintings (sorry, no nudes); the grounds have a putting green and all the old farm buildings. There's also the outdoor cage where he kept Hitler. They'll tell you it's an aviary, but believe what you want. The place is packed with Nazi-busting personality.
Everyone wants a D.C. monument to be epic, though. When city planner Pierre L'Enfant was laying out the streets in the 18th century, he envisioned circles and plazas of national remembrance woven into the fabric of our capital. Those circles and plazas have since led to hours of quiet reflection by those sitting in the traffic they cause. Washington monuments are held to a different standard of significance -- only, no one knows what the standard is anymore.
It used to be that a monument focused you on the person. A giant obelisk works for Washington; big monument equals big man. There's something pleasantly direct about the statues of Jefferson and Lincoln; they're gussied up with Greek-style temples, but essentially you're looking at a famous guy frozen at the time he was famous. History was made by great men.
That got blown to hell as the National Mall became a public stage. Things like the "I Have a Dream" speech, for example, made the Lincoln memorial about more than Lincoln. Then came the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- all this is described quite nicely in Kirk Savage's "Monument Wars" -- which encouraged visitors to have a different experience altogether. As you walk down into the ground, rising next to you is a black wall with the names of dead soldiers from a war we didn't win. History gets more democratic and less kick-ass.
And then all that gets obliterated by people not caring so much. On any given day, the Vietnam memorial has bored teenage tour groups flirting and laughing right next to sad relatives. The day the World War II memorial opened in 2004, people were walking in the fountains with their shoes off and rollerbladers tried out the ramps. Standing over Eisenhower's grave in Abilene, I was joined by three texting middle-school girls. Without Ike they'd be texting in German, but for some people, history doesn't matter.
The beef with Gehry's design is that it leans too much on an interpretive experience. There's too much Kansas and not enough of what made Eisenhower an international stud. Something more direct and simple supposedly would match Ike's character. Like, say, a statue of Ike kneeing Hitler's junk.
Really, it doesn't matter: whatever they build, the people who want a profound experience will find a way to have it, and disrespectful jerks will find ways to be disrespectful jerks. Once they're completed, monuments have a more to do with the viewers than the artists. Don't overthink the symbolism and just make it pretty.
Or don't make it at all, because Washington already has an Eisenhower memorial. Directly south of the White House, there's a squat stone block from 1923 in the middle of the sidewalk just outside the security fence. For decades, sweaty tourists have sat on it, banged their knees on it or ignored its inscription: "Point for the measurement of distances from Washington on highways of the United States."
In 1919 an Army convoy drove from the Zero Milestone to San Francisco to assess the nation's roads, and Dwight went along as an observer. Remembering 5 mph crawls across the ill-paved countryside and impressed by German motorways, as president he pushed for the Interstate Highway System. That triumph of military-infused logistics -- Eisenhower's trademark -- shaped our entire modern lifestyle, from supply chains to suburbs to presidential site road trips.
Put a bow on that block, revel in its elegance and save the other space for whoever wins the next world war. Assuming he's not a Chinese, of course.