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.
The glossing-over in Gehry’s design doesn’t stop at the prairie boy. It features a quotation from Eisenhower’s farewell address, the speech that famously denounced the military-industrial complex. That speech put distance between the president and the churning dynamo of Pentagon spending that still shapes American military policy, yet no one did more to unleash that malign force than Eisenhower himself. When Ike took office, the US arsenal contained something like a thousand nukes; when he left, the number was around 20,000. Wouldn’t it be lovely to think Eisenhower was innocent of that poisonous mushrooming? The permanent institutionalization of state power based on nuclear threat remains the most significant fact about Eisenhower’s presidency.
What is the most significant fact about the United States? The nation habitually thinks of itself as the boy, forever brimming with good intentions. That’s why Americans are jolted by revelations to the contrary. Members of the US Secret Service had embodied a last bastion of discipline and selflessness, yet now come reports of “rings off” recklessness. President Obama’s protectors in Colombia may have been barefoot when they engaged with prostitutes, but they were not wholesome lads — either in exploiting the women or in notching up the potential danger to the president. Nothing shattered the illusion of Eisenhower-era innocence like the assassinations of the 1960s, which is why the Secret Service betrayal of trust so rends the nation’s morale.
The most significant fact about the United States today is that the nation is at war, but, as with Tom Rath deflecting knowledge of the 17 men he killed, that fact is continually pushed under the surface of awareness. Every few months, the war pops up: That might be in a show of enemy power, like the recent Taliban offensive that included assaults in Kabul, a strategic initiative that should have been impossible by now. Or it may involve revelations of dehumanized brutality on the part of American soldiers, including last week’s publication of photos of troops desecrating the remains of Afghan insurgents. In such cases, officials deflect all questions about a broader dysfunction, whether of overall progress in the war or of breakdown in the American fighting force. Denial is the order of the day, everyday. Yet denial itself now belies the innocence it seeks to uphold.
“This is not who we are,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in response to the gruesome photos. Of course, one hopes he is right. It isn’t who we are when the best among us betray their sacred trust. Nor is it who we are, as Eisenhower proposed, when our moral agency is overridden by the impersonal energy of a militarized culture that has the nation — again — so futilely at war. But who are we? Prairie folk, perhaps. Family people. Good at public relations.