WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is appointing a known critic of the planned Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial design to serve on the federal commission that oversees the project.
The White House announced Obama’s intent to appoint former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole last month, but it drew little attention while Congress was in recess. Cole led the humanities endowment under former President George W. Bush.
In the past two years, Cole, an art historian and scholar, has published at least two articles criticizing architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial.
Gehry has proposed a memorial park with statues and images of Eisenhower as president, World War II hero and as a young boy from Kansas. Large metal tapestries and large columns would frame the park, with images depicting the Kansas landscape of Eisenhower’s boyhood home.
If the design is approved, “the nation will wind up with a monumental farce,” Cole wrote in The Washington Examiner in February 2012. He called the design “a cross between an amusement park and a golf course, which thumbs its nose at the neo-classical style of the great presidential monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.” In The Weekly Standard, Cole wrote that the Gehry design is “unintelligible” and “more about his ego than about Ike.”
This is Obama’s first appointment to the bipartisan memorial commission, which was formed under former President Bill Clinton. Cole fills a Republican seat vacated by Eisenhower’s grandson, David Eisenhower. The seat has been vacant since late 2011 when David Eisenhower left the commission.
In an interview Tuesday, Cole said the memorial should reflect the war hero and 34th president’s career, values and principles, but he stopped short of calling for any specific changes.
“I’m all in favor of building a memorial to President Eisenhower. I think that’s an important thing the nation should do, and I’m very honored to be on this commission,” he said. “I hope that I’ll be able to work with the commission and bring, I hope, a diversity of opinion.”
Cole serves on the board of advisers for the National Civic Art Society, which supports classical architecture and has been a chief critic of Gehry’s memorial design, along with members of Eisenhower’s family. The group said Tuesday that Obama’s pick was meaningful.
“Not only has Obama acknowledged the controversy, he has knowingly appointed a known opponent” of the design, said Justin Shubow, the group’s president.
Cole will join 10 other commissioners, including lawmakers from the House and Senate, who have generally supported the memorial’s design and development. One other seat remains vacant and must be filled by a Democrat from the Senate.
Commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko said Cole will be welcomed aboard once the nomination is complete.
“We always appreciate spirited debate,” Cimko said. “We’ve been anxious to have that spot filled. We look forward to welcoming Dr. Cole and getting him up to speed on the progress of the memorial.”
Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, said Obama’s selection of Cole came as a surprise to the family but was one they approved. She said having a new perspective on the commission could reinvigorate its work.
“It’s not just about memorials, but you know, his background indicates that he has a lot of experience with historic memory and other important things that are wrapped up in memorials,” Eisenhower said. “If anything, the commission has had some difficulty in having extremely, extremely busy commission members who perhaps have not followed the progress of developments as much as they might have.”
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