In 1984, the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Constitution was a hot topic in Philadelphia. And, as a reward for my hard work on his campaign, the new Mayor appointed me to the committee that was planning the event. From my perspective, it was a pretty dismal affair, mostly a bunch of rich people throwing a party for themselves.
At one sparsely attended meeting, however, a committee member suggested that we create an event legacy, perhaps a museum. Speaking in its favor, I was soon drafted to chair a subcommittee to develop the idea.
That was the beginning of an amazing 7-year journey. Working closely with my partner on project, Craig Eisendrath, we saw a unique opportunity to develop a Center that would teach the values implicit in the Constitution.
The moment was just right. In no time at all, we had a planning grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the attention of key political leaders and the best Constitutional scholars, and operational funding from Congress. Today, the National Constitution Center stands at the north end of Independence Mall, here in Philadelphia.
But here – from a Radical Decency perspective – is the real story of the Constitution Center’s creation as I see it.
Craig and I started with a radical vision. We would use the country’s origin story to teach the real meaning of a set of values, honored in theory but, all too seldom, in fact: Justice, civil rights and civil liberties, a respectful public dialogue. In the end, however, our dream died, supplanted by mainstream museum that reinforces our status quo ways of doing business – by retelling a politically safe story of triumph and American exceptionalism.
What I find most interesting is how this happened. As money flooded in, substantive control of the project migrated – seamlessly and imperceptibly – to a generous and well-intentioned group of donors. And what confused and disarmed Craig and me, for far too long, is that most of these donors actually liked our “radical” vision – at least in theory.
What we failed to realize, however, was that these people became wealthy playing by the rules of the mainstream culture – and that “that” was their true bottom line. So as one smart decision and compromise followed another – all in the name of attracting more funds and strategic support – a radical programmatic mission morphed into the mainstream museum that exists today.
For me, this is a paradigmatic story for our times: How radical initiatives – instead of being persecuted and quashed – are domesticated, marginalized and derailed; loved to death by money.
Am I bitter about what happened? No. Do I visit the National Constitution Center? Almost never. Hopefully, lessons learned from this experience will serve my ongoing efforts to contribute to a better, more decent world.