A marine band played, fighter jets flew overhead rumbling Capitol Hill, and senators and congressmen gathered as America’s last general-turned-President, Dwight D. Eisenhower received a long-awaited national memorial dedication on a rainy night in the nation’s capital Thursday.
“If you think this weather is rough, just think what it was like on the English Channel,” remarked Greta Van Susteren, television news anchor, who opened remarks at the Frank Gehry-designed memorial, sandwiched between the U.S. Department of Education and Independence Avenue, and only the 7th presidential memorial in Washington.
The design — which persevered 20 years of planning, redesigns and delays after then-President Bill Clinton signed the enacting legislation to honor the commander who led the Allies in thwarting Nazi Germany during World War II and later led a nation during the early days of the Civil Rights struggle — shined in sparkling stone on Thursday under the long tapestry of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, site of the D-Day Invasion as signatures lined up to pay tribute to Ike.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Eisenhower’s home state of Kansas, called Mr. Gehry’s provocative sculpture of the boyhood president — before his days at West Point — as symbolizing the “coming of age of Eisenhower and America.”
“Through all of the darkness there is light,” said Mr. Roberts, who chaired the commission creating the memorial. “And this memorial comes exactly at the right time to provide some light in our troubling times.”
The achievement-studded career of the 34th president, from commanding the military during the 20th Century’s tipping point against fascism to the early days of the Cold War and even to the effort to racially desegregate schools drew a diverse list of speakers, from former Republican Leader of the U.S. Senate Bob Dole, a fellow Kansan, to Fox News Host Bret Baier (who called the president a “scrappy kid from Kansas”), Democratic Rep. Mike Simpson, from California, to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recalled the president dispatching federal troops to protect Black children attending desegregated schools in Little Rock in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He was a hero to those like my parents and their friends” who sought to be “treated as first-class citizens in America,” said Ms. Rice, who recalled her father casting his first vote for a Republican by supporting Mr. Eisenhower.
The $150 million monument became embroiled in conceptual disagreements between the Eisenhower family and the architect, Mr. Gehry, known for such visually striking projects as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Mr. Gehry initially envisioned a sculpture of Eisenhower as a boy surrounded by giant metal tapestries emblazoned with images of Kansas. After year of back-and-forth, a compromise was reached, featuring more of Mr. Eisenhower’s military heralds, including the large tapestry of Normandy.
The tumult of 2020 — from social unrest, rioting, and destruction of historical statues in the streets following the death of Black man George Floyd in police custody to the novel coronavirus — weren’t far from Thursday night’s proceedings.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt also referenced the “criminal action” against statues on federal property and observed “rather than removing and revising the memorials of great leaders, the Trump administration believes that we must tell more stories of exceptional action by exceptional people.”
Grandchild Susan Eisenhower noted a “great sadness” many in her family remained home due to public health concerns related to the novel coronavirus.
Like many public events, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the unveiling of the memorial from V-E Day to Constitution Day. Social distancing was also enforced, as many attendees wore masks and remained apart.
Ms. Eisenhower noted she hoped someday people would “bring a sandwich” and sit under the memorial before visiting the nearby Smithsonian museums.
Other video messages came from an astronaut aboard the U.S. International Space Station — a nod to Mr. Eisenhower’s role in establishing NASA — and the memorial’s architect, Mr. Gehry, who said “at first glance, the site wasn’t or didn’t seem great,” noting the traffic and bland bureaucratic offices.
“But,” he said, “We got it done,” in echoes of Mr. Eisenhower who said, tersely, “Okay, let’s go,” prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The event retained some of the pomp and circumstance — even in the rain — as a 1940s-era swing band tune played as members of the commission cut the ribbon unveiling the memorial.
Scholars praise Eisenhower for his nonpartisan roots, echoing the nation’s first president. That tie was recognized by Ms. Rice, who said, like Mr. Washington, Mr. Eisenhower “didn’t seek political life, it sought him.”
David Eisenhower, another grandson, noted “Memorials indeed preserve history, and they also do and must reflect our values.” He added he hoped a “time will never come when America will not cherish the values depicted here.”
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