Mauling the Mall (The Wall Street Journal)

Forget Guadalcanal and the Bulge. If the infighting in Washington these days is any clue, the biggest battle of World War II will turn out to be the battle over the national memorial now planned to commemorate it. Like all monument proposals, the winning Friedrich St. Florian design has been attacked by critics as mediocre – wedding-cake imperial. Far more contentious than even the design, however, has bee the proposed placement: in the middle of the hallowed Mall, right between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.For a while it appeared as if sentiment might carry the day, especially with Tom Hanks and Bob Dole serving as the public faces of the $100 million fund-raising effort. But last week the chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Cathryn B. Slater, finally asked the questions no one else wanted to bring up in a searing letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Citing the “serious and unresolved adverse effects” that the plan would have on the Mall, Ms. Slater zeroed in on its key flaw: the effort to force it through without any real public accountability. When major changes to an exceptionally significant American landmark like the National Mall are contemplated,” she wrote Mr. Babbitt, “it is essential that citizens be given an opportunity both to understand these changes and to express their views on them.”

Goodness knows, we have nothing against honoring World War II veterans. But Ms. Slater has it right. The Washington and Lincoln landmarks commemorate presidents responsible for the birth and rebirth of the Ameri-can nation. As now conceived, plans calling for the World War II memorial to replace the Rainbow Pool would have us henceforth viewing these monuments literally and symbolically through that war, an inversion of historical priorities surely no veteran will be comfortable with.

It doesn’t help matters that the original plans called for the memorial to be at the edge of the Mall, where it wouldn’t disrupt the sweeping vista. Indeed, critics charge that the switch to the Rainbow Pool site smacks of backroom dealing-made without sufficient public con-sultation, In fact, Congress in 1986 anticipated such heedlessness when it passed a law designed to prevent monument fever from cluttering up our National Mall.

Under the law, the memorial requires the approval of three entities or it goes back to the drawing board: the Commission on Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission and the office of the secretary of the Interior. Only the first has officially signed off. Mr. Babbitt is pondering the advisory council’s admonishing letter, and the NCPC is holding hearings Thursday.

Speaking to Talk magazine last year, Mr. Dole sounded distressingly like a member of the Me Generation when he said of the Rainbow Pool site, “We think we deserve it.” What the heroes of World War II really deserve is a monument conceived with more sensitivity to the other ‘landmarks of the American experiment and reviewed with more respect for the democratic ideals they fought and died to defend.

 

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