Congressman Bishop Says Critics of His Eisenhower Memorial Funding Bill Are Overreacting

The chairman of the subcommittee holds hearings on Tuesday to address the memorial’s future.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Congressman Rob Bishop. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

The increasingly contentious debate over the fate of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial returns to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, when voices from opposing sides will be heard before a House subcommittee. The hearing comes one week after the subcommittee’s chairman, Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, introduced a bill that would put a hold on $100 million in federal funding and take the whole process back to the beginning, before the proposed Frank Gehry design was on the table, and before the controversy became immobilizing. The approval process has been at a virtual standstill for more than six months.

Bishop’s bill attacks the design process, so far, and reaction to it from the design and architecture side was pointed. Rocco Siciliano, chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected Gehry and his design, called the legislation an insult. The CEO of the American Institute of Architects, Robert Ivy, called it intimidation. In an interview with The Washingtonian, Bishop said their words were “an overreaction by people who are invested in the process.” The witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing include Carl W. Reddel, the commission’s executive director, and Susan Eisenhower, speaking on behalf of the family. The start-off witness is Congressman Darrell Issa, who, as chairman of the oversight committee, has investigated the memorial design ordeal. According to sources, Gehry was not, and did not need to be, invited to testify.

Bishop, in addition to the design controversies, wants to talk about money. The commission estimated it would need $137 million for construction. Congress, so far, has given them $62 million, according to a member of Bishop’s staff, who said $32 million has gone to construction while “the rest of the pot went to fund other areas.” A separate $2 million was appropriated for annual salaries. It’s the additional funding for construction that the bill freezes.

Members of the Eisenhower family were the first to voice opposition, early last year, saying they felt the Gehry design was not appropriate for a man who, in addition to being a former resident, was also World War II Supreme Allied Commander of Europe and Chief of Staff of the army. Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson, David Eisenhower, the only family member on the panel, resigned from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and as a unified force the family—including David and Susan, their siblings Anne and Mary, and their 89-year-old father, John S.D. Eisenhower—sent a letter of protest to the National Capital Planning Commission. One year ago Susan Eisenhower testified for the first time before Bishop’s subcommittee, and later some modifications were made to the overall design, but the opposition and controversy did not abate.

In an interview with The Washingtonian in January 2012, Susan said, “The problem with this [Gehry] design is that it’s like a theme park.” Her family’s objection in particular, she said, was to the large woven metal tapestries they felt were not in keeping with Ike’s personal story or the overall concept of the design, which they wanted to be more open and more like a park. “If you want to define appropriateness, put him in a more traditional setting, in a more modest and sustainable way,” she said.

The bottom line is that the memorial is stalled and has yet to be considered by the NCPC.

We talked with Congressman Bishop as he was about to board a plane from Utah to Washington. Here is the conversation:

What do you hope to resolve at Tuesday’s hearing?

Three points: number one, the commission has to be reauthorized, regardless. The terms have expired, and we have to reappoint some new people. Second, a clear accounting of how the money has been used so far, and how they intend to raise and use money in the future. Third, to see if we can relook at the design to arrive at some consensus.

Some have described your bill as designed to “kill” the present Gehry design. Is that an accurate description?

No. That may be the ultimate decision, but I do want another set of eyes to look at the design to see if something can be done to make it less divisive.

What would be the objectives of a reappointed commission?

You have to do something. It’s fair to relook at what we’re doing to come up with the right product to honor Dwight Eisenhower.

How much time would you give a new commission?

I want them to do it right. I don’t care how long it takes.

If a new commission sticks with the current design, or proposes a new design, would you support reinstating the more than $100 million in federal funding?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is it’s not my decision alone to make. It is [the appropriations committee’s] decision to make.

When a new commission is formed, what should its makeup be? Is it important to have a family member, or members, back on it?

It would be helpful but not necessary.

What difference has the Eisenhower family’s opposition made in the debate and your decision to introduce legislation?

The family’s questions are appropriate, and they need to be considered. The questions are not just involving the family itself. There are other people who have significant questions. For example, how the process was used, how the money was spent, and what the final product will be.

The chairman of the Memorial Commission called your bill an insult. The CEO of the American Institute of Architects called it intimidation. What do you say to that?

[It’s] an overreaction by people who are invested in the process. The bottom line is there has to be a bill to reauthorize the commission. Period. And right now the entire issue of the memorial has been very divisive. So one way or another, it’s time to let another set of eyes look at the situation and see what we’re doing. We may end up with the same product, if that’s their decision.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. This commission has run a unique pattern in the way we do memorials. The funding has been unique—they have to tell us how they have used the money so far—and the process of selection of the designer and design has been unique. People care deeply about what the memorial will be because they care so much about someone who did so much for our country. Those concerns have to be explored. When we do that, historically, we have come up with better memorials.