Men as Monuments

Writing in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, architecture critic Paul Goldberger offers an illuminating synopsis of the controversy surrounding the newest edition to the Mall in Washington, D.C.:  A proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s distinguished World War II general and 34th president.

The controversy centers upon a private-turned-public fight about the memorial’s design.  In one corner are two of the general’s granddaughters, Susan and Anne Eisenhower; in the other, the memorial’s architect, Frank Gehry.  Ike’s heirs’ beef, in short, is that Gehry’s vision does not present their grandfather’s life, accomplishments and character in the way they would prefer.

In his reporting, titled, “A Monumental Conflict,” Goldberger raises many excellent questions—first about the proposed Eisenhower memorial specifically, and second about Washington’s myriad memorials and monuments in general.  As he reminds us, this current spat over how to properly represent an important piece of the American story along the National Mall (or anywhere) is very much an old phenomenon, and a frightfully crucial one at that.

These considerations range from the economical—what level of funding, if any, should the government provide?—to the artistic—should the designer, once chosen, maintain total creative control?—to the philosophical nitty-gritty—in this case, how to represent a man who, as Goldberger gently notes, “evokes few intense feelings,” whose “measured eloquence and quiet, focused achievement weren’t stirring” in the manner of, say, a Lincoln, a Jefferson or an FDR.

Goldberger’s probing approaches, but does not quite reach, the subject’s most important query of all:  Should the United States be in the monument-building business in the first place?

Lest we forget, America was founded as a nation of laws and not men.  The great implied insight in our creed, “all men are created equal,” is that finally no person is better or greater than any other.  Although some men and women naturally are more intelligent and accomplished than others, we are all equally human and equally bound both by the laws of men and nature.  United States history contains no superheroes and no gods.

I submit, then, that we might do well not to treat certain individuals as if they were.

Asked by Charlie Rose if he has any heroes, satirist P.J. O’Rourke recalled an observation by Harry S Truman, that one should be careful in erecting a monument to a living man:  You never know what he might do before he checks out.  In light of the Penn State fiasco, where a statue of the recently-tainted late coach Joe Paterno was unceremoniously hauled off-stage, we might add a corollary that you never know what he might already have done.

Beyond the potential embarrassment involved, going the extra step of literally and figuratively casting our role models in bronze, effectively enshrining sainthood, carries other deleterious effects.  For one, it makes arguing over their legacies into a far less even playing field.

In the 1990s, for instance, when allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings first met with DNA evidence, the primary defense against the charge—by high-ranking historians and biographers in particular—was that Jefferson’s status as a founding father rendered him morally incapable of carrying on such an affair.  (As if the small matter of his slave-holding itself were somehow less of a stain on his character.)  A healthier, more measured view of Jefferson would recognize that, yes, even the author of our Declaration of Independence could be driven by emotional and sexual stimuli.

The fact is, America is a land of hero worship.  It’s an obsession of ours that infects politics today as much as it infects Hollywood, sports and the music industry (see Obama, Barack, c. 2008).  In a way, so deifying political leaders is the worst kind of hero worship, since these are creatures elected by, representative of and answerable to us, the people.  Once elected, they are prone to all the power-tripping and ego-boosting Washington instills in its officials, and we do ourselves no favors by encouraging this unseemly behavior by acting as if they deserve it.

General Eisenhower was a great leader and an exceptional man.  Must we muddy the Potomac by making it official?

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