Just a stone's throw from the U.S. Capitol, a park nestles among museums and office buildings. Twenty years in the making, it's a new memorial, dedicated to a president who is garnering new esteem: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Correspondent Rita Braver visited the memorial with Susan Eisenhower, the president's granddaughter, a foreign policy analyst who has spent years studying her grandfather's career. It was Susan's first time: "I'm quite overwhelmed by it," she said. "I'm really thrilled.
"Grandad used to say, 'Don't let them put me on a horse.' So, he's not on a horse!" she laughed. "He's leading men, which I think is far more appropriate."
Indeed, as president, Ike (as he was known) is flanked by both military and civilian aides; and as commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, he is portrayed in a scene based on real life – visiting troops just before the launch of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
Susan Eisenhower's new book, "How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower's Biggest Decisions" (published by Thomas Dunne), focuses on her grandfather's strength of character. For example, though he was confident the D-Day mission would succeed, she said, "He wrote a note to himself that said, 'In case this operation fails, the responsibility is mine, and mine alone.'"
Eisenhower himself explained that note as he returned to Normandy with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite in 1964: "I was the one responsible for the decision to go," Eisenhower said, "and all the fault belongs to me, and that's that."
Renowned architect Frank Gehry says that he had never really studied Eisenhower until he was invited to compete for the chance to design the new memorial. "I was knocked off my pins [by] the way he managed the war," said Gehry. He felt he "had to do it. I wanted to do it. I couldn't stop."
Gehry's original winning design, based on guidance from a commission appointed by Congress, bears little resemblance to the memorial now built. At its center was a statue of Ike as a boy in Kansas, looking out on a series of metal scrims (or tapestries, as Gehry calls them) featuring key events in his life.
The family was not pleased. "I think we were perplexed by the design," said Susan. "The idea that a young boy would be looking at his future and wishing, what? To become commander of the most devastating war in human history? I don't think he was dreaming to do that."
Braver asked Gehry, "How did you respond to that?"
"Well, I had to agree with them because, you know, they lived with it. They knew better than me," he replied.
Finally, after years of wrangling between the commission and the family, it took former Secretary of State James Baker to broker a deal. Now, there is just one large metal tapestry representing Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot cliff on the coast of Normandy scaled by Army Rangers under German fire on D-Day.
Gehry said, "The funny thing is, how do you make a tapestry of Pointe du Hoc? It's just a big chunk of land, isn't it? Anyway, I did the drawing, and the family liked it, and there we are!"
Another person who likes the new design is Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott, who saw it first at night: "And the lights were just coming up on the tapestry, this big, long metal woven, welded kind of abstract rendering of the beaches at Normandy. And it was gorgeous."
Kennicott also likes the statue of Ike as a boy, now set off to the side.
Braver said, "It is going to be a surprise to people to see a rendering of a heroic figure as a child. That's just not something we [typically] see."
"It isn't," Kennicott said. "It's Lincoln on his throne in the Lincoln Memorial, or it's just the massive obelisk that represents Washington."
"Do you think Eisenhower is deserving of a memorial, as these things go?" Braver aasked.
Kennicott replied, "I think his legacy was enormously consequential. His stock has risen very much in the last decade – the civil rights elements, the role he played in integrating important institutions in American life."
Today there is special resonance to Eisenhower's ordering federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. He sent them to protect nine Black students entering Central High School, as jeering crowds tried to block their way.
In a TV address on September 24, 1957, President Eisenhower told the nation, "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."
Many historians now rank Mr. Eisenhower in the top tier of American presidents. Still, Kennicott reminds us that views can change: "With time, I think we're realizing that idea of an absolutely great man is just not there any more."
Braver said, "We're reevaluating George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, two of the pillars of the American Revolution, because they were slave holders."
"We're reevaluating Lincoln, too," said Kennicott. "Politicians are never saints."
But Susan Eisenhower has no doubt that her grandfather's legacy – both as general and as president – should be honored: "He had such an extraordinary career, went on for 50 years. He is a man, I think, whose values and principles can be an inspiration for rising generations. And that's what memorials are for, after all."
For more info:
- Eisenhower Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Dedication ceremony September 17 at 7 p.m., streamed live)
- Eisenhower Memorial Commission
- "How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower's Biggest Decisions" by Susan Eisenhower (Thomas Dunne), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- Architect Frank Gehry, Gehry Partners
- Philip Kennicott, art critic, Washington Post
- For more on Eisenhower Memorial sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov
- For more on Tomas Osinsky, the artist behind the Eisenhower Memorial "tapestry"
- Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home, Abilene, Kansas
Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Remington Korper.
- ("Sunday Morning," 6/9/19)
- ("CBS This Morning," 10/21/19)
- ("Sunday Morning," 6/14/20)
From the archives: Two decades after D-Fay, former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower returned to Normandy, and talked with CBS News' Walter Cronkite about his experiences in June 1944: