Monday, September 3, 2012

Will The Constitution Center Survive?

When Ed Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia and Governor of Pennsylvania, he was an indefatigable cheerleader for the city. The Kimmel Center, National Museum of American Jewish History, and the National Constitution Center owe their existence to his fundraising prowess and his superhero ability to extract money from the federal and state budgets. Rendell's political philosophy seemed to be borrowed from the "Field of Dreams" - "Build it and they will come."

Now that he is out of office, these institutions are floundering. When his final legacy is written, it may be littered with white elephants throughout the city. The Kimmel Center has cut back its programming schedule. Most of their reduced schedule is joint productions with concert promoters. Attendance at the Jewish Museum and the Constitution Center has fallen short of projections. 

The National Constitution Center seems to be in the most danger of shutting its doors. The head of the center, David Eisner, recently resigned his $400,000 job. With no new job lined up, the announcement indicates to me that he is in a rush to leave a sinking Titanic.

Eisner's tenure at the Constitution Center was a failure. A diffident public speaker, he never clearly articulated a vision for the center. Without the exhibit of Bruce Springsteen memorabilia this year, center attendance would have fallen off the cliff.

Like the Princess Diana exhibit before it, the Springsteen exhibit had no real ties to the stated mission of the center, which is to teach visitors about the constitution. The overflowing crowds at the press luncheon for the Springsteen exhibit did not hear a lecture about copyright laws or freedom of speech that would have linked the exhibit to the constitution. Instead a photographer showed his early photographs of Bruce. The best indication that the Constitution Center has lost its way were the covering up of the picture of founding father George Washington by a photograph of Bruce and the enlarged photo of Bruce that overpowered the building's inscription of "We the People".

Similarly, the selection of Muhammad Ali for this year's Liberty Medal while the nation is at war is a slap in the face to all the soldiers that have died defending our constitution. Being the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, I revere Ali's fight for religious freedom. I just think that he should be honored when the nation is not at war. When thousands of return soldiers suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder are committing suicide, it is not the right time to honor a draft evader.

While former Defense Secretary Bob Gates honorably served his country, his speech at the Liberty Medal was his regular canned speech. He was ubiquitous on the lecture circuit last year. I heard him give the exact same speech two other times. I had championed the selection of Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was one of the leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt.

In this bad economy, non- profits can not be choosy about their donors. The Constitution Center may have trouble luring suitable recipients for the Liberty Medal because the lead donor, Ira Lubert, has been accused of fraudulent transferring funds by a bankruptcy trustee.

It is not just the public events that lacked relevance. Although the Constitution Center touts winning State Department funds for participating in the Table to Table program, the superficial agenda for the visiting Latvian students had very few lessons about our constitution. Reading the description of the program provided me with one of my few tea party moments. I was angry that my tax dollars were being wasted on this program.

I attended one of the events at the People for People Charter School in North Philadelphia. Center staffer Sayeh Hormozi could not explain how Latvian teenagers eating lunch at an inner city school was classified as a service project and how it was teaching them about the Constitution. It struck me as racist to think that eating lunch with black children was a service project. As someone who participated as a teenager in archaeological digs at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and picked oranges on a Kibbutz, I am familiar with meaningful service projects.

Although it is one of the main freedoms in the constitution, the center curiously never respected freedom of the press. They limited press access to most of the speakers at the center, including last year's Liberty Medal winner. When former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appeared at the Center, presidential historian Michael Beschloss used the weak excuse that he did not want to ask the same questions as ABC's Diane Sawyer to avoid asking him hardball questions. They regular bar members of the press, including me, that are critical of the center.

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