David Brooks’s op-ed piece in The New York Times is lazy on multiple levels. It is ostensibly another salvo from another conservative critic against the Frank Gehry-designed memorial to the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it suggests that Brooks hasn’t kept up with the debate and changes made in response to critics of the memorial, and that he is merely using the general harrumphing about Gehry to vent ideas unrelated to Gehry’s design.
First the factual issue. Brooks says, “The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood.” It seems Brooks may be thinking of an earlier iteration of the design. The current plan features a statue of Eisenhower as a young man, looking out at heroically scaled statues of Eisenhower as president and as a general. The “barefoot boy” idea, borrowed from Eisenhower’s own homecoming speech in Abilene, Kan., that was under consideration a half year ago is no longer part of the design.
The rest of the piece tries to meld a larger cultural argument (or familiar dyspeptic refrain) about authority and leadership to a specific argument about memorials. That’s ambitious. The thrust of the former is: “We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power.” More generally, we are addicted to equality, distrust authority and have become cynical about it. How, if we have such a great “follower problem” can we make monuments that celebrate greatness?
As for memorial design, Brooks asks: “Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?”
No surprise, Brooks likes the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials because they invite you to look up at the great man. He argues that more recent memorials “evade the thorny subjects of strength and power.” The Maya Lin-designed Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “about tragedy” while the Korean memorial “is about vulnerability.”
But these are war memorials, not monuments to individuals. They aren’t about leadership, but rather about the most colossal failure of leadership. The Maya Lin-designed Vietnam memorial, which isn’t just about tragedy but also about shame, doesn’t wallow in victimology. It screams truth at power.
Brooks never really answers how one might design a contemporary memorial in a way that deals with power and authority in more subtle, complex ways, a memorial that celebrates Eisenhower’s obvious greatness, yet acknowledges the “paradoxes” of power: “That leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs.”
I wish that Brooks would go back and read Gehry’s thoughts on precisely these questions. Few architects faced with the daunting task of making a memorial in the 21st century have thought as deeply about precisely these questions as Gehry has done in the process of designing his monument to Eisenhower. Let’s be specific: The paradoxes and perils of power are addressed in the likely use of Eisenhower’s Guildhall Address as part of the memorial’s text; the tension between being superior to yet of the people is represented in a sculptural grouping that shows Eisenhower with soldiers on the eve of D-Day; and the sense of Eisenhower being part of a larger design is represented in the beautiful tapestries that surround him, connecting him to the land, the past, the people and the nation which he led.
What more does Brooks want? He doesn’t say, but I’d guess it is something with marble and columns, borrowed without too much thought from the old pattern books.