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OPINION | DAVID VON DREHLE: Memorial to leadership

by David Von Drehle The Washington Post | September 19, 2020 at 10:31 a.m.

Building a monument in Washington is a process of many years -- even decades. No one can predict at the beginning of the undertaking exactly when it might come to fruition. Could anyone have imagined in 1945 that nearly half a century would elapse before a memorial to the men and women who fought and died during World War II would be dedicated by a grateful -- if rather tardy -- nation?

So it is an entirely unplanned coincidence that the memorial to Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States, has been completed and dedicated during the frenzied final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign. On Friday, the public was welcomed into the 4-acre park across Independence Avenue SW from the popular Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Across the long facade of the Education Department headquarters now hangs a vast tapestry of stainless steel depicting a stylized sketch of the Normandy beach at Pointe du Hoc. Two bronze tableaux feature Eisenhower in action -- as general and as president. The entire conception originated in the mind of architect Frank Gehry.

Eisenhower's presidency is associated in the contemporary mind with a placid and prosperous America at peace, when dads were wise and moms vacuumed in high heels. When our current president promised to Make America Great Again, it was this cartoon of the 1950s that many people imagined he would restore.

Like all Utopias, this was an illusion. The Eisenhower years, from 1953 to 1961, were a period of enormous upheaval and bitter division. Black Americans were demanding their rightful seats on buses and places in classrooms. Angry crowds confronted National Guardsmen in the streets of American cities, while in the halls of Congress, partisans did battle in claustrophobic hearing rooms over conspiracies -- some real, some invented. Soviet advances in rocketry and high tech convinced many of America's most savvy analysts that the nation's global leadership was quickly passing. It was a time of bitterness, resentment and mutual suspicion; a time of ruined reputations and casual slurs.

That those years would mellow in the memory of future generations into the gauzy happiness we call "the Fifties" -- all saddle shoes and sock hops, Perry Como and Howdy Doody -- would have amazed those who actually lived through the Eisenhower administration. But forgetting is a way of healing. More precisely, selective remembering is a way of healing. What much of America has chosen to remember -- the seeming steadiness, the sense of order -- stems from the great dignity of Eisenhower himself. He was the calm during those stormy years, hardly perfect, yet imperturbable. As the storms receded, they left the residue of his steadiness.

Eisenhower was steady because he was ready; his life was one long study in the art and science of leadership. Raised by devout parents in a central Kansas town whose glory days were already in the past, Eisenhower, commonly known as Ike, seized an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy as his ticket to the world. But what shone at West Point was his level head and emotional maturity.

He was patient. At 50 years old, he finally made the rank of colonel; at 53, and three quick promotions later, Gen. Eisenhower was named supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. Yet he remained an eager student, learning not from mentors now but from hard experience. He bore setbacks with equanimity and leaped at opportunities as he spotted them. He honed a gift for managing strong and competing personalities; his underlings included such egomaniacs as George S. Patton and Bernard Law Montgomery; his constituents included such larger-than-life characters as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Yet, though he could efface his own ego when necessary, he never dodged responsibility. Indeed, when he launched the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, Eisenhower's preparations included a handwritten statement to be released if the mission failed. "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone," he wrote.

As president, Eisenhower had ample opportunity to practice all he had learned. He stumbled enough that his critics called him stupid, yet his warnings about the Washington swamp (he called it the "military-industrial complex") were visionary enough to predate Trumpism by more than half a century.

The new monument invites us to think of Eisenhower in the context of our own turbulent times. And thinking of our leaders is always, ultimately, a way of looking at ourselves. What in us has called forth such a different leader? Is it something we'd want the future to remember?


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