Don't hold your breath if you're hoping for change in Washington. For all the drama there, it’s still business as usual behind the scenes. One federal commission just secured funds from Congress to build the biggest, costliest, most controversial presidential memorial ever.
This fact might surprise its subject, the victorious general and two-term president Dwight David Eisenhower, known as he was for personal modesty even amidst his great achievement.
In the hands of a celebrity architect and a runaway commission, his memorial is set to become a monument to its makers instead.
Only President Trump can fix this situation, and here is why he should.
Behind this controversial design, the Washington swamp has been hard at work, pursuing the people’s business through private connections rather than public process. The commissioners in charge of Ike’s memorial set aside the usual public process for designing national memorials, through competitions that are open to everyone. Instead they commissioned a famous architect directly, one with close personal and professional ties to the commission’s then-chairman.
Outright appointment being politically unfeasible, the commissioners used a government program which Congressional investigators have found was altered to benefit the architect they chose. Once chosen—before he completed a design— architect Frank Gehry was free to work without any controls on cost or the controversial content for which he is known.
Gross mismanagement of President Eisenhower’s memorial then followed. The Eisenhower family and much of the public balked at the design Gehry came up with, which features ten-story hanging metal screens and a statue of President Eisenhower as a child. Gehry's design will cost more than twice its planned budget, not including a 65% increase in compensation the commissioners voted him through contract options.
A torturous path to approval by Washington planning agencies is still not complete and has left the project years behind schedule, at no cost to the memorial staff and commissioners because Congress keeps paying their expenses.
Last November, the Eisenhower family set aside its reasonable objections in exchange for some cosmetic changes that are now causing further delay in the approvals process. In May, the Commission of Fine Arts asked for bigger mock-ups of the gigantic screens after a smaller sample which is supposed to show the beaches at Normandy turned out illegible. Even amidst this poor performance, with partial funding in hand, the Gehry design is likely lurching toward completion anyway, final cost and schedule unknown.
This puts us far down a wrong path that began when President Eisenhower’s memorial commissioners abandoned public process to tip the scales toward their preferred architect.
Under these circumstances, Ike’s memorial will never come out right. It has failed already in its primary purpose, to perpetuate the memory of President Eisenhower’s achievement and character. A man who balanced the budget and excoriated the bureaucracy would not likely be happy with the expensive and possibly corrupt boondoggle the bureaucrats have made of his memorial.
To find a less costly, more acceptable alternative, we must return to where the design process for Ike's memorial went wrong. We must redesign it through a public competition that is open to everyone and which judges anonymously submitted designs based on their merit. This is how in 1980 a 20-year-old college student named Maya Lin came to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
We’ve used public design competitions for every memorial designed for the National Mall ever since, and not merely for tradition but also because public competitions consistently work. They can be used to control costs, they keep the design process focused on design ideas rather than designer personalities, and they do not favor any one style.
We cannot get back on this right path without President Trump’s leadership. He can let it be known that even when it does receive final approval, his Department of the Interior will not issue the required permits to build the Gehry design. He can also replace intransigent commissioners—four of whom he appoints—with new ones who will support a competition to redesign Ike’s memorial.
This is the only way to memorialize the man himself, an opportunity that will remain open until this fall, when the commission hopes to start construction of the Gehry design. Instead the new funding should be directed to a public competition, one with a budget cap to keep costs under control.
That sounds so much more like Ike than the bureaucratic abuse of power and the public purse that’s about to be foisted on us. If the bureaucrats succeed, Ike’s memorial will be an ironic tribute indeed to a man who warned us against exactly this possibility.