The Battle of the Mall (The Washington Post)

By Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

William Jefferson Clinton managed to weasel his way out of military service in Vietnam, but that did not prevent him from sending American armed forces on foreign adventures in Somalia, Bosnia and the Middle East. Nor has it discouraged him from using the presidential bully pulpit to promote the site on the National Mall that has been chosen for the much delayed World War II Memorial. As it now stands, the memorial will be constructed at the site of the Rainbow Pool, which is midway between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The decision is not final–both the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts must review it one more time–but it has powerful support. Its national fundraising campaign chairman is Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and Republican presidential nominee whose brave, honorable and self-sacrificial service in the war is well known. Clinton, who beat Dole for the presidency eight years ago, has embraced the Mall location as well. He first endorsed it 4 1/2 years ago, and last week said that it is “still perfect for the memorial.”

In this the president takes issue with others–many of whom, as it happens, are veterans of World War II–who argue that the memorial as designed would interrupt the clear view between the two great monuments and would disturb the pedestrian flow as well. Some of these have organized World War II Veterans to Save the Mall. In a letter last week to The Washington Post, its chairman, John Graves, called the neoclassic design of the proposed memorial “grandiose,” claimed that it would cost $135 million by contrast with the $48 million spent on the FDR Memorial, and reiterated his organization’s support for “the original site for the memorial . . . a beautiful spot just east of Constitution Gardens–on the Mall, but not in the center,” which would cost much less and not scar the heart of the Mall.”

Before getting to these objections to the memorial and its site, one point needs to be addressed. Veterans to Save the Mall and its allies portray the National Mall as a pristine place that would be violated by a clunky stone edifice between the monuments to Washington and Lincoln, but that is hardly the case. As one who walks the Mall almost every day, I can testify that it exists in a never-ending state of self-violation. Right now, the western end of the Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, is almost entirely given over to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival; there are tents everywhere, the odor of various comestibles fills the air (not to mention the odor of pony poop, from a small corral set up near the Air and Space Museum), and scarcely a blade of grass appears to be alive. Meantime the sacred Rainbow Pool is fenced off to tourists and all others, as it is the launching pad for the huge fireworks display that will be staged tomorrow night.

The Mall may be “America’s front yard,” but let’s be honest about it: Much of the time it looks more like a dump than a national treasure. The grounds of the Washington Monument are used for kite-flying, softball and various gatherings– rallies, protests, reunions–too numerous and diverse to catalogue. When the Smithsonian packs up its folklife show, something else will take its place; a few weeks ago that end of the Mall bristled with military hardware, up to and including airplanes, for reasons that never made themselves clear to me.

All of which is well and good. If the nation is to have a front yard, then by all means use it, for the edification and amusement of the people. Not merely that, but bear in mind as well that the Mall has not always been the Mall. Over the years the space it occupies has been many things (swampland, for one) and has served many purposes. Its present incarnation, though pristine by comparison with its past ones, remains what it has always been, a work in progress.

The question therefore has little to do with the Mall as holy ground. It is a matter of aesthetics and perspective. Though there are some objective criteria by which the former can be measured and judged, at heart it is in the eye of the beholder. To my eye, and obviously to others’, Friedrich St. Florian’s design for the memorial is both ponderous and pompous. It will be pointed out that this is merely business as usual in official and monumental Washington, but the contrast between St. Florian’s design and the elegant, understated monuments to Washington and Lincoln is stark and, by implication, not exactly flattering to the veterans of World War II. They deserve better.

As to perspective, it was out of a conviction that the significance of World War II so outweighs that of the other conflicts memorialized near the Mall that the Commission on Fine Arts rejected Constitution Gardens in favor of the Rainbow Pool. As a historical judgment, that is beyond dispute (unless one chooses to regard the Lincoln Memorial as a monument to the Civil War or the Washington Monument as one to the Revolution), but it fails to reckon with one important question: Since there is no monument to any war in the heart of the Mall, why should any other war now be granted so singular an honor? This question, so at least it seems to me, has not been satisfactorily answered by any proponents of the Rainbow Pool location, and in the absence of a compelling argument the proper conclusion is self-evident: Don’t mess with the Mall.