The only thing uglier than Friedrich St. Florian’s imperial kitsch design for Washington’s World War II Memorial is the sleazy combination of back room dealing and strong arm manipulation that has conspired to bring the project to fruition. A vital opportunity for a meaningful, moving work of art that would commemorate the extraordinary achievement of ordinary Americans in stopping fascist terror hasn’t just been lost; now, it’s being crushed beneath the boot.
Rapid-fire events of the past few days in Washington have brought the situation to an astonishing brink. On Monday, it could be over. Congressional forces are attempting to pass legislation that would set this huge project on a fast track, with full exemption from oversight by any federal law or agency.
The bill, denounced by District of Columbia congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) as “radically destructive,” and by a Friday USA Today editorial as “imposing a ham-handed solution on what should be a solemn process,” is being swept along on a powerful torrent of emotion.
Here’s the drumbeat, pounded out by memorial campaign chairman and former Sen. Bob Dole and expressed Thursday in a statement issued by President George W. Bush: “Every day, we lose approximately 1,100 men and women who served in World War II. And of the 16 million who served, barely 5 million remain. It is more important than ever that we move quickly to begin construction if those who served are to see the nation’s permanent expression of remembrance and thanks.”
It’s a heart-tugging claim. But what does it say to someone like my mother? She’s 83 now. She didn’t serve in the military, as my father did in the Pacific theater. But throughout the war she labored every bit as hard and suffered every bit as much in the awesome effort to stop the march of tyranny. Bush and Dole might not get it, but she’s a veteran of World War II in the way that only citizens of a democracy with a people’s army can be.
That fact is central to the grandeur of the American triumph in World War II. Ordinary Americans, struggling at home and abroad, stopped the totalitarian machine. Not surprisingly, this sentiment goes unrecorded in St. Florian’s militaristic design for the memorial, which is modeled after battle cemeteries in Europe and the Pacific. That’s precisely why it’s undeserving of a central place in the narrative of democracy that unfolds on the great axis of the National Mall.
The World War II Memorial is not some trophy, handed out to winners of a contest. A memorial, like those to Washington and Lincoln, is not meant as a reward for participants, but as an embodied lesson to future generations, who weren’t there but need to know the gravity and magnitude of the event.
And it’s not the opponents of the current site and shabby design who have made a mighty mess of things. The suit they filed in federal court in October itemizes the myriad ways in which the memorial project, begun in earnest nearly eight years ago, violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Commemorative Works Act--this last enacted during the Reagan Administration precisely to protect the glory that is the National Mall.
In reaction to the persuasive lawsuit, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) introduced legislation in April to simply exempt the troubled memorial project from any federal laws or judicial review--a bill that would instantly nullify the lawsuit. (The top contributor to Hutchinson’s election campaign was Wal-Mart Stores, one of the memorial’s four main corporate sponsors.) This outrageous bill, derided in a Times editorial as “just the latest attempt to ram this project through, the public and the law be damned,” went nowhere.
Then, early this month, responding to a stunning Justice Department discovery that numerous federal agency votes approving the memorial design and the site appeared to be invalid, the National Capital Planning Commission did what it should have done years ago. The NCPC scheduled two days of full public hearings for mid-June. The agency also requested that the memorial’s sponsor and the National Park Service erect a schematic, full-scale mock-up of the elaborate memorial on the proposed 7.4-acre site, at the end of the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool.
Within hours, the American Battle Monuments Commission, sponsor of the memorial, e-mailed its supporting troops to condemn these “threatening hearings from the NCPC.” More important, Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) introduced in the House a slightly different version of Hutchinson’s floundering Senate bill, also designed to nullify the federal lawsuit. In a late-night vote on Tuesday, after frenzied lobbying by the American Legion and others, the House passed Stump’s bill.
Early newspaper reports suggested that a Senate version would be attached to a defense appropriation bill in June. But on Wednesday, Hutchinson suddenly tried (and failed) to get his bill passed in the Senate. Urged on by Dole, work began on compromise language. Efforts to get a late-night vote on Thursday were fended off, but the Senate bill is likely to come up on Monday.
What an astonishing sight. Charles Cassell, an architect, World War II veteran and co-chair of one of the groups that filed the lawsuit against the plan, aptly told the Washington Post, “There must be something terribly wrong with the World War II Memorial if Congress has to nullify federal legislation to get it built.”
There, in fact, lies another grim irony. The 1986 Commemorative Works Act--among the laws that would be nullified by these bills--was designed to prevent just what’s happening now. Monument fever had overtaken Washington in the wake of the triumphant success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and dozens of constituencies were suddenly jockeying for position to celebrate their causes on the Mall. The act was meant to block exactly that steam-roller of emotionalism, political pandering and patriotic grandstanding that led to Tuesday night’s lopsided, 400-to-15 vote in favor of Stump’s bill. In such a climate, a reasoned vote in opposition could seem a vote against motherhood and in favor of drowning kittens. The Commemorative Works Act meant to replace the howling mob with the deliberation of democratic process.
Supporters of the current memorial plan have tarred opponents as a small band of troublemakers from outside official Washington, who have somehow entangled an eminently worthy project in a bureaucratic snarl. In fact, what actually happened is that a heroic group of ordinary American citizens caught that federal bureaucracy with its pants down and promptly blew the whistle in the courts.
There’s no need to repeat the long, sorry saga here. One pivotal yet representative episode will do.
On July 27, 1995, a smarmy bait-and-switch occurred. All federal parties except the Commission of Fine Arts had followed a lengthy, public, legal process and reached a reasonable agreement that the memorial should be built in Constitution Gardens, site of the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. But at the CFA meeting, former Ambassador F. Haydn Williams, a member of the sponsoring American Battle Monuments Commission, and J. Carter Brown, the CFA chairman, unilaterally introduced the idea of switching to the Lincoln Memorial site.
Needless to say, the Lincoln Memorial is among the most cherished sites in the nation. Any high-profile proposal to build another monument there would have drawn thorough scrutiny. Without appropriate public notice or public debate, and in spite of apparent violation of the Commemorative Works Act, Brown rammed the switch through in six weeks flat.
Now, public debate might be slapped down once and for all. And this is the story of the National World War II Memorial thus far:
* Congress wrote the rules.
* Federal bureaucrats willfully yet secretly broke the rules.
* Watchful citizens caught them.
* The bureaucrats smeared the citizens and turned to Congress.
* Now, Congress prepares to rewrite the rules.
What a stirring legacy the memorial will be to the millions of citizens who suffered and died to protect American democracy.