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The silver lining in the Eisenhower Memorial controversy

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

A tempest has been brewing in the typically staid world of presidential monument commissions over the proposed design of the long overdue Dwight David Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC. 

Opponents of the Frank Gehry creation, which include some members of the Eisenhower family, contend that too much emphasis is placed on Eisenhower's rural Kansas upbringing at the expense of his military accomplishments and presidency. 

The renowned architect was inspired to depict Ike's humble roots with a steel tapestry and statue of a six year old Eisenhower after reading his own words -- the former president once described himself as a "barefoot boy from Kansas" -- believing that it would provide a moving sweep that captured his rise from humility to greatness. Of course, Ike the statesman is not overlooked: two giant stone reliefs will contain iconic photos of Eisenhower, one addressing his troops on the eve of D-Day and another studying the globe while president. 

Sadly, the brouhaha that has erupted will likely delay the groundbreaking, slated for later this year, which consequently will jeopardize the dedication set for Memorial Day, 2015 -- the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. 

With each passing day, the ranks of the Greatest Generation -- those that served with Eisenhower on the beaches at Normandy -- dwindle in number.It would be wonderful to have as many as possible at a fall groundbreaking, and again at the dedication three years later. 

And while it's lamentable that the Eisenhower Memorial is arousing such fervid debate, in some ways it's a blessing, for it is catalyzing -- for the first time really -- serious discussion about the man's legacy as president and statesman. 

For too long, Eisenhower has been a forgotten or at least overlooked figure of the twentieth century. 

On some level, it's understandable. The plain-spoken Ike served in the middle of a century book ended by the outsized presidencies of  Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, his time in office sandwiched between "Give' em Hell Harry" and Kennedy's Camelot. Combined with the fact that he was a subordinate to the nation's only four-term president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and not nearly as interesting as the endlessly complicated Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, one could see how he's been lost in the shuffle. 

But historians often get the first draft of history wrong, particularly when it comes to presidential legacies. Contemporary sentiment has a way of clouding the judgment of even detached observers. 

With the passing of time though comes context and perspective, a broader narrative in which to place and evaluate presidents and their legacies. 

In the case of Eisenhower, the long lens of time has brought a sharper focus and renewed clarity to his subtle but monumental achievements while in office. 

Eisenhower inherited a country that was coming to terms with the ugly reality of an atomic Russia and communist China, that was floundering in Korea, baffled and frightened by the McCarthy witch hunts, and suffering a deep crisis in confidence. 

In short order, Eisenhower negotiated a peace in Korea that remains today; dispatched Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his era without debasing the presidency or his principles; eased the tension of the Cold War while warning, presciently as it turns out, against the insidiousness of a permanent "military-industrial complex"; and presided over an economic boom that balanced fiscal austerity -- he was the last president to cut the budget in real dollars -- with the preservation, and in some cases expansion, of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal safety net. 

In his second term, a period when most presidents are less successful, he passed two landmark civil rights bills -- a fact that is often overlooked, and sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to force the integration of public schools. 

He began our exploration of space with the creation of NASA and invested tens of billions to create the interstate highway system -- the largest public works project in history -- which has been re-paid with incalculable dividends in economic growth over the years. 

And most impressively, Eisenhower fastidiously avoided partisan acrimony with a Democratically-controlled Congress and even the Soviets for that matter. He led our nation with civility and grace -- something our politics could use more of today.

Nick Ragone is the author of "Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation."

Nick Ragone is an author, attorney and public relations executive in Washington, D.C. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Rutgers University, and is a graduate of the Eagleton Institute of Political Science at Rutgers University (undergraduate) and the Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of four books: Essential American Government, Everything American Government, President's Most Wanted, and Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation.