A controversial proposal is threatening precious space along the National Mall in Washington. It has ignored democratic processes and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. It has stalled construction of a fitting memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower, one of American’s greatest heroes, to promote insider interests and an expensive avant-garde design that would occupy more public space than the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials combined.
Working with President Trump, Secretary Ryan Zinke can fix this wayward process to get President Eisenhower’s memorial built. As the representative from Montana, then-Congressman Zinke was charged with upholding Montanan's support for public lands; now he has authority over them as head of the Department of the Interior. He can use that authority in coordination with the White House to order a fair and open public competition for an Eisenhower Memorial that respects both the legacy of Ike and the integrity of the National Mall.
At every step the current plans to build President Eisenhower’s memorial, approved by Congress in 1999, have been overshadowed by misuse of our standard public process to design public memorials. Every memorial commissioned for the National Mall since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981 has been designed by the public, through competitions that consider anonymously submitted designs from anyone who wants to submit them. This is how a twenty-year-old college student named Maya Lin came to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
These anonymous public competitions work like our democratic political process by giving equal voice to every participant. They also keep the focus for public memorials where it should be, on ideas rather than designer personalities. Public competitions also work, consistently producing designs that have earned the broad consensus to get built, on-time and on-budget.
The organizers of President Eisenhower’s memorial ignored this proven public process. They commissioned a famous architect directly, one with close personal and professional ties to the man who chaired President Eisenhower’s memorial commission. He and his fellow commissioners chose the architect through a bureaucratic program that is only nominally public, and which Congressional investigators later found had been altered to favor the chosen architect.
This undemocratic and possibly irregular selection process has produced a bad deal for the American people, for public lands and for President Eisenhower’s legacy. The original construction budget has more than doubled to nearly $150 million, as the selected architect has been allowed to work without competition; compensation to his firm has also increased by nearly 60%. Final costs do not include $40 million public dollars already spent developing and promoting his design. Under these circumstances the memorial to President Eisenhower—who hated government waste—will not only be bigger, but also more expensive than the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials combined, and in current dollars.
The commission in charge is working to build the memorial anyway. It has convinced President Eisenhower’s family to put aside earlier reservations about the design for fear the memorial might go unbuilt altogether. Congress is poised to allow the commission to begin construction without full funding as the law allows. A blank check is a bad idea for what is already the most expensive presidential memorial ever.
President Eisenhower’s legacy and the American people, including Montanans, deserve better. That means a smaller memorial on the existing site, a design chosen through public competition and a return to the original budget with a cap on construction costs of $50 million. The $100 million savings could operate Glacier National Park for more than three years. No plot of public land in Washington should be worth so much.