October 24, 2017

America’s Caesars and the Ides of March

America's Caesars: Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower

Designs for the new Eisenhower Memorial in Washington is creating controversy which shouldn’t be surprising or necessarily a bad thing. America’s Caesars have made this country a safe place to work for the renegades from all professions, including architects. The stage for the ides of March is a buzzer beater in college basketball’s March Madness.

CAESAR
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

The Frank Gehry design has a young Eisenhower, overshadowed by the vastness of the Kansas landscape. The critics argue that Gehry is making Eisenhower look ordinary by minimizing his military career and presidency. Gehry has the renegade reputation. His conventional design, so say the critics, is an insult to Eisenhower. The super sized memorial consumes four acres of Washington real estate and neglects Eisenhower the supreme allied commander.

They just don’t get it. Gehry probably doesn’t get it, either. Maybe his design is an intentional snub of Eisenhower as a merely conventional thinker and doer, amiable, plain as Kansas lucky. But unintentionally, the design is extremely radical and emphasizes the radical ideal of the Founding Fathers and the first great American Caesar, George Washington. Gehry created a design of enormous time and space. Critics expected Gehry to say at least something about the greatness of Eisenhower. The memorial design allows visitors too much freedom to think for themselves.

Eisenhower was buried in a simple wood coffin, leaving behind his medals and a reputation that grows like an oak tree with every passing decade. His real memorial is on the walls of simple clapboards and ranch houses. The framed pictures of the World War Two family members in their uniforms. Take the men who are fat and vain and build them great memorials and presidential libraries and over time their reputations will rot into the earth like an old barn. The monuments and libraries get bigger as the accomplishments become smaller. Taxpayers could award every president a Kindle for their library from this point on and be done with it. One of Eisenhower’s generals was Jim Gavin, the jumpin’ general. As with Eisenhower, Gavin dreamed of escaping the confines of a conventional life. Gavin was given up for adoption at the age of two and suffered from the abuse of an alcoholic foster mother. He ran away from home at the age of 17 and joined the military. Gavin had an eighth grade education but a remarkable passion for reading. He studied another great American Caesar, Ulysses Grant, whose memoirs have been praised by historians and Mark Twain. Gavin earned appointment to West Point, studying early every morning in the bathroom to overcome his educational deficiencies. Gavin always led from the front. Eisenhower didn’t want him to jump with his troops at Normandy, telling Gavin that generals were harder to replace than the soldiers. Gavin jumped with his men.

“The place for a general in battle is where he can see the battle and get the odor of it in his nostrils,” he said. “There is no substitute for the general being seen.”

I read somewhere that the gap between CEO compensation and the typical employee is now something like sixty times higher than during the Eisenhower presidency. In Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, applauded by liberals and conservatives, he warns of the danger in a ruling class of technical, political, industrial, and military elites. Grant writes with great clarity in his military memoirs, criticizing the ruling factions for causing the Civil War and then staying well behind the front lines as recruits from the hill country paid the terrible price for allowing the leadership to exploit their ignorance. Grant wrote his memoirs while dying and bankrupt, receiving encouragement from Mark Twain.

George Washington, the first and greatest of American Caesars, believed liberty and the struggle for freedom was a cause much bigger than the individual. How radical to believe in something bigger than yourself. The Eisenhower memorial design is much larger than the man. America’s Caesars might approve of it more than Julius and the contemporary critics.

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