In the interregnum between his presidency and his tenure as Chief Justice, William Howard Taft served a thankless role as Chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission. President Taft himself signed the legislation creating the memorial in 1910. Once retired, he was promptly named by Congress to head the commission that designed and approved the monument at the west end of the National Mall we all know so well today. I say the role was thankless because—like today—you can’t please everyone and the displeased are always louder than the pleased. But that was then. Few today dispute the profound gravity and majesty evinced by the Lincoln Memorial.
|Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in May of 1922|
At its dedication in May of 1922, Mr. Taft extolled Abraham Lincoln’s character and temperament:
Justice, truth, patience, mercy, and love of his kind, simplicity, courage, sacrifice, and confidence in God were his moral qualities. Clarity of thought and intellectual honesty, self-analysis and strong inexorable logic, supreme common sense, a sympathetic but unerring knowledge of human nature, imagination and limpid purity of style, with a poetic rhythm of the Psalms — these were his intellectual and cultural traits. His soul and heart and brain and mind had all these elements, but then union in him had a setting that baffles description. His humility, his self-abnegation and devotion, his patience under grievous disappointment, his agony of spirit in the burden he had to carry, his constant sadness, lightened at intervals with a rare humor all his own, the abuse and ridicule of which he was the subject, his endurance in a great cause of small obstructive minds, his domestic sorrows, and finally his tragic end, form the story of a passion and give him a personality that is vivid in the hearts of the people as if it were but yesterday.
The funny thing is, you can sense all of that just from looking at the simple—though gargantuan—statue inside this edifice. Still, the twelve years between the enabling legislation and the completion of the Lincoln Memorial were anything but simple. As designs were rejected, recriminations flew; once a plan was agreed upon, there was a huge fight over who would supply the marble. Colorado won out, but—in a delicious twist of irony—southern Democrats convinced the commission to use Georgia marble for the statue of Lincoln. States’ rights were one thing but business was business. Fights have been a staple of these national monument projects from the beginning and yet, for all the strife, these granite tributes are becoming less and less interesting.
The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial: these are the monuments I grew up with. The first is the most recognizable obelisk on earth, symbolizing, in the words of the National Park Service, “the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father.” The others are masterpieces of sculpture housed in civic temples of marble. As I approached adulthood, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. It also is a simple design, but one intended to honor all the war dead and not just one person. The symmetrical walls of polished, black granite engraved with the names of those killed and missing in action is a gripping sight to behold.
I have not visited the World War II Memorial, but it looks very much in keeping with the simple dignity of our first monuments. However, the tributes to Korean War veterans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. leave me somewhat cold. They are too busy: too many figurines and murals, not enough message. Granted, that is my subjective opinion, but what else is a blog for?
The proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial promises to be one of those projects that looks dazzling on paper but falls flat when unveiled. Meanwhile, there are many voices in Congress and without—including the Eisenhower family—calling for the current design to be dumped. The Washington Post disagrees, asserting that the time has come to break ground and not waste any more time and money on design. The newspaper may have a point, but is it any better to waste time and money on construction and maintenance?
Instead of cluttering our nation’s capital with more statues, plazas and engraved panoramas, I think we should focus more on functional monuments. The Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Theodore Roosevelt Island preserve are excellent examples of tributes that break the marble mold, and daily produce living reminders of their namesakes. Surely the man who won the war in Europe and created the interstate highway system is worth honoring in this way. The United States Institute of Peace, for example, could be renamed for Eisenhower and—more importantly—retooled to reflect his unique balance of force and diplomacy.
The monuments and memorials of Washington, DC are a great blessing to that city and to our country, Let’s face it, though: not everyone is a founding father or agent of national reconciliation. And space is finite. We should look at other ways to honor Americans who make extraordinary contributions lest we dilute the impact of these marvelous civic temples.