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No stranger to controversy, World War II Memorial again at center of bickering

The stone pillars of the World War II Memorial have become a symbolic battleground in the government shutdown fight, with both political parties hoping to harness outrage over its closure to elderly veterans of the conflict.

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In the latest salvo, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus offered to cover the cost of keeping the memorial open despite the funding lapse, a move Democrats dismissed as a “silly stunt” that sidestepped the real needs of veterans.

The memorial – a series of soaring stone towers and triumphant fountains in the middle of Washington’s National Mall – has been the subject to controversy since it was proposed in in the late 1980s. The rancor meant it took 17 years to complete.

The origins of the memorial are traced – the story goes - to a fish fry in Ohio in 1987, when veteran Roger Durbin asked Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, why there was no memorial to the conflict where he could take his own grandchildren when they visited the nation’s capital.

Durbin didn’t live to see the memorial completed.

After Kaptur introduced legislation to build the monument, it took six years for Congress to pass the bills authorizing its construction and funding. President Bill Clinton authorized a commission to build it in 1993. The federal government went on to hold 22 public hearings on the matter.

When the downtown site was finally proposed, critics railed that the memorial’s placement – in the middle of Washington’s famed national mall, would block the historic views and pedestrian paths envisioned by the city’s historic planners.

"The Mall is the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., at the time. "There should never be anything in the middle of the Grand Canyon."

Even more pointed were criticisms of the design: the golden eagles and huge stone structures reminded some architects of the exact style of the Nazi regime that World War II veterans fought to defeat.

A prominent D.C. based architecture magazine compared the design to those used by Nazi architect Albert Speer to honor Hitler’s regime.

Those activists took their battle to court, suing to halt the construction of the new memorial. After years of review, Congress passed a law exempting the monument from legal action in 2001.

And there was the matter of money. Congress only provided a fraction of the funds needed – an estimated $100 million that ballooned to almost twice that cost by the time of the construction’s completion in 2004.

The project was eventually completed with funds raised from a massive effort headed up by former Sen. Bob Dole, actor Tom Hanks and others.

While the 17-year battle to build the memorial to the Greatest Generation is just old history to most of the visitors now, the closure of the memorial during the shutdown has made it a gathering place for veterans happy to deploy the freedom of speech they fought for themselves.

Asked for his thoughts on the shutdown, Korean veteran Michael Kuhn of Shawnee, Kan., offered a plain-spoken response.

“How blunt do you want it?” he replied. "Our government in Washington, D.C, sucks.”