By DEVIN DWYER, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — After years of controversy and delay, Dwight D. Eisenhower this week officially joins six other former American presidents with a major monument near the National Mall in Washington.
The $150 million tribute to the country’s 34th president, Republican icon and supreme Allied commander during World War II will be completed and dedicated on Thursday, nearly 60 years after Eisenhower left office.
“He joins the greats: Washington, Jefferson, in terms of founding our country; Lincoln; the two Roosevelts; the Kennedy Center is actually a presidential memorial,” said Victoria Tigwell, deputy executive director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
“His legacy is cemented in American history through this memorial,” she said.
The memorial is also inviting comparisons in leadership style and accomplishments with the current Republican president, Donald Trump.
Members of the Eisenhower family and the memorial commission said the unveiling — in the midst of a pandemic, recession and divisive political campaign — is an opportunity for the nation to reflect on a half century of American progress and what’s needed now to shape a better future.
“It’s possible that there are people like (Eisenhower) living with us that can rise to the occasion, given the opportunities,” said architect Frank Gehry of the message he hopes his design conveys. “It can come from anywhere, from any race or culture. And it’s special when it happens suddenly.”
The memorial charts Eisenhower’s rise from Abilene, Kansas, to a five-star wartime general and, later, two-term U.S. president.
A steel mesh tapestry depicts the coast of Normandy, France, where Allied forces under Eisenhower’s command stormed the beaches on D-Day in 1944.
ABC News Live got an early look at the memorial, situated along Independence Avenue in southeast Washington within view of the U.S. Capitol and flanked by offices of the Federal Aviation Administration and Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, each created during the Eisenhower presidency.
“It’s not bombastic. It’s quiet,” Gehry said of the structure.
First authorized by Congress in 1999, the memorial was completed under budget this month — a fitting tribute to a president for whom fiscal and personal responsibility were hallmarks, Tigwell said.
“If you look after the pennies, everything else falls in line,” she said.
Eisenhower, who was popularly known as “Ike,” won the White House in a landslide in 1952. He presided over eight years of prosperity and peace in America.
While some of his critics saw him as a “do-nothing” president, Eisenhower is widely credited with dramatically shaping public life. He appointed five justices to the U.S. Supreme Court; greatly expanded the Interstate Highway System; and created NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“He was in a society where we would find people who could make a difference at the right time, and he happened to be there,” said grandson David Eisenhower, director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School for Communication.
Eisenhower oversaw desegregation of the U.S. military and public schools, sending troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce integration. He also signed into law protections for voting rights. But his critics say the push for equality could have been stronger.
In 1953, Eisenhower signed an executive order banning gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the U.S. government.
“I know he was disappointed that he could not bring the Cold War to an end by the end of his eight years,” granddaughter Susan Eisenhower said of the president’s shortcomings. “In terms of his personal flaws, he certainly, I guess would say he had a temper which he learned to bring under control over the years.”
The memorial focuses squarely on Eisenhower’s leadership and accomplishments, inviting fresh contrasts between a bygone Republican president and the current one.
Dwight Eisenhower even recently appeared in a 2020 presidential campaign TV ad produced by The Lincoln Project, an independent Republican group, that suggested Trump doesn’t measure up to Ike.
“I’m not sure how useful comparisons are, but I do think that comparisons are inevitable because people are looking to the past to show some guideposts and to understand how we got to this position,” Susan Eisenhower said.
“I do think, however, that the Eisenhower leadership style was much more effective for this country,” she added.
The Eisenhower style put a premium on unity. In that spirit, the family and memorial commission invited Trump and the four other living former presidents to come together for the memorial dedication. None were able to attend, organizers said.
“The dedication of it was originally scheduled for May 8, 2020, which would be the 75th anniversary of D-Day. So we would have been celebrating a past achievement,” said David Eisenhower. “But the circumstances that we’re in now really require us to look for something deeper.”
Tigwell said she hopes young visitors to the open-air memorial will be prompted to reflect on their future and personal potential.
“I hope for a child who comes here, they’ll see that statue of young Ike and maybe they’ll wonder how did this kid who came from Abilene, Kansas, with, you know, no advantage socially or economically … figure out how to make his life into what it was,” Tigwell said.
“Because that is what we all hope the American story is: that freedom gives you opportunity,” she added. “And with opportunity, you can paint your own canvas.”
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