Meyerhoff is forced out at Holocaust museum White House set to replace overseer

April 06, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In an abrupt move that reflects the controversy that has long dogged the building of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the White House has told Baltimore developer Harvey M. Meyerhoff he will have to step down as chairman of the council overseeing the museum days after it opens here this month.

The sudden ouster of Mr. Meyerhoff -- only weeks before the museum's April 22 dedication and scheduled opening four days later -- is the result of a long-standing ideological schism within the museum staff and the mounting concern that Mr. Meyerhoff would soon handpick a new director for the museum, according to a source involved in the maneuverings.

Mr. Meyerhoff, who donated $6 million to the privately funded museum, was told by the White House last week to halt the search for a new director, under way since late last year. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council that he chairs had hired an executive search firm last December to scout out possible replacements for Jeshajahu Weinberg, the current director, who plans to retire at the end of the year.

"Some of the pressure exerted to do this now certainly had to do with worry about who the next museum director would be -- especially among those who would like to be the next museum director," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And clearly, there were divisions of opinion over the direction of the museum for the future."

Mr. Meyerhoff wanted the museum to appeal to and educate the broadest possible audience, while others wanted more focus on the museum's role as a Jewish memorial.

Although the permanent exhibits are in place, a number of major decisions concerning the direction of the museum -- how its public programs, educational programs, research arm and special exhibits will be shaped, for instance -- will be determined by the chairman and director over the next year.

The White House decision to dump both Mr. Meyerhoff and the council vice chairman, William J. Lowenberg, a San Francisco businessman, disturbed Jewish leaders in Baltimore and Washington, where the Meyerhoff family is well-known for its philanthropy. They were dismayed by what they viewed as an insult to Mr. Meyerhoff on the eve of the museum's debut.

"Mr. Meyerhoff and his family are as responsible as anyone else for making this happen," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "He's put his heart and soul in this. It's just a tragedy he's being replaced -- and that it happened this way."

Both Mr. Lowenberg and Mr. Meyerhoff, who has chaired the council since 1987 when he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, are Republicans and were expected to be replaced by the Clinton administration at some point.

Mr. Meyerhoff declined to speak with a reporter yesterday but issued a statement saying that he and Mr. Lowenberg were informed by the White House last Thursday that they would be replaced and were asked to remain in their current positions until April 30. Following that, he said, they would remain on the council.

Mr. Lowenberg also declined to comment yesterday on the White House action, first reported yesterday in the Washington Post, except to say, when asked if he was surprised at the timing of the move, "Indeed."

Illinois Rep. Sidney R. Yates, whose subcommittee oversees appropriations for the museum, said yesterday he was asked last week by Janet Blanchard, White House deputy director of personnel, when Mr. Meyerhoff and Mr. Lowenberg should be replaced.

"I told her she shouldn't do it before the opening of the museum, that it was too delicate a time now, that these people have been working night and day to get ready for the opening," the Illinois Democrat said yesterday.

After hearing the following day that the White House had moved anyway, Mr. Yates called back Ms. Blanchard to say, "I think that was pretty abrupt." He said that Ms. Blanchard, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, responded, "Well, that's the instruction I received."

Lorraine Voles, White House deputy press secretary, said the president wanted to appoint his own chair and vice chair, as he's permitted to do by federal statute. She said she had no specific information on the timing of the replacements.

But the source familiar with the situation said a number of Holocaust memorial council members and senior museum staff members, whose concept of the museum differed from Mr. Meyerhoff's, had recently been lobbying the White House to hurry the move.

"It's about ideology. There are those who see it as an American museum and those who see it, first and foremost, as a Jewish museum," she said. "Mr. Meyerhoff took a stand a long time ago that this museum belongs to the American public. That made him some powerful enemies."

The 55-member U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was established in 1980 to oversee construction of the $150-million museum that, although funded privately, has been built on federal land -- on the southwest edge of the Mall in Washington.

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