The prominent architect Frank Gehry developed his design for the Washington memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower around the image of the wartime hero and Cold War president as a barefoot farm boy. The criticism Gehry drew for neglecting Ike’s true significance was misguided: Taking the president’s historic achievements as given, Gehry chose to emphasize them by contrast, setting the statue of an untested lad of the Kansas prairie against the heroes of the National Mall. The genius architect works by indirection.
Yet for all his fame as an innovator, Gehry is exhibiting the very American impulse to elevate the image of innocence over experience, especially tragic experience. The impulse came to full flower in the Eisenhower years, for example, with the 1953 novel “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” by Sloan Wilson. Applying for a job, gray-flanneled Tom Rath is told to identify “the most significant fact” about him. Tom is a World War II combat veteran, and for an instant he thinks that the most significant thing about him is “the unreal-sounding fact . . . that he had killed 17 men.” But he dismisses the thought, and replies that the most significant fact about him is his being a family man who would be good at public relations. The novel, with its portrayal of corporate ennui and social conformity, became an icon of an age that glossed over the traumas of mass violence on which it was built.