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Remembering Eisenhower’s greatness

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The on-going saga of the Eisenhower Memorial continues, which we’ve covered before here, here, and here. Now, conservative commentators George Will, Ross Douthat, and David Frum join the line of critics who think that Frank Gehry’s design to commemorate the nation’s  34th president misses the point.

George Will, writing in the Washington Post, argues that national memorials are celebrations of greatness and “reminders that a person esteemed by the nation lived and is worth learning more about.” The proposed memorial purposely avoids this celebration by depicting Eisenhower’s greatness as nothing special: according to the Post’s Philip Kennicott, “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped.” To Will, this negates the purpose of memorials entirely: “How sweetly democratic,” he writes. “Greatness can be tapped hither and yon. But if greatness is so abundant and assured, it is hardly greatness, so cancel all memorials.”

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat continues on this theme and reminds us that Einsehower was, in fact, great. Americans, like the memorial’s architect Frank Gehry, tend to underestimate Eisenhower’s  achievements, but they were actually quite remarkable. Douthat notes:

Ultimately Eisenhower is underrated because his White House leadership didn’t fit the template of “greatness” that too many Americans pine for from their presidents. He was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles. There was no “Ike revolution” in American politics, no Eisen-mania among activists and intellectuals, no Eisenhower realignment.

Instead, his greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make. He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw American into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism. He was decisive when necessary, but his successes — prosperity, peace, steady progress on civil rights — were just as often the fruit of strategic caution and masterly inaction.

Perhaps “other men” could have achieved this combination of steadiness, competence and successful crisis management, as the Eisenhower memorial’s impersonal design seems to suggest. But few of them have occupied the Oval Office these last 50 years. Instead, from the 1960s down through the eras of George W. Bush and Barack Obama — from “pay any price, bear any burden” to “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” — the defining vices of the modern presidency have been hubris, recklessness and overreach.

This is why the memorial controversy really matters. Eisenhower deserves a monument that puts him where he belongs — in the very first rank of American leaders — because the nation needs to be reminded of where true presidential greatness lies.

And finally, David Frum, writing at The Daily Beast, argues that the problems with the Eisenhower memorial go beyond the objections that it does not say enough about Eisenhower. Instead, “the core problem here is that the monument does not have anything to say, period. [… And] it says something not good about US society that we seem to need more and more acres of space for monuments that have less and less to say.” Frum’s suggestion? “Go back to the drawing board. Shrink the monument’s footprint. Then hire a designer who has something to say about Eisenhower and his time.”