Playing Politics with Remembrance

April 09, 1993

The Clinton White House's churlish sacking of the chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council three weeks before the public opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was worse than insensitive. It was more than ungrateful for the six years of dedication and toil these citizens contributed. It was incompetent government.

Just when council members and staff were going into the last frenzy of preparation for the April 22 dedication and April 26 public opening of the most comprehensive museum to the Holocaust, White House politics destabilized them. A would-be wrecker could not have timed the monkey wrench more effectively.

This solemn American memorial museum to the Holocaust, a vision of the 1970s and law of 1980, came into being through the tireless effort of two very different men, without both of whom it could not exist. The first chairman of the council, the Nobel laureate writer Elie Wiesel, was the moral force who argued and preached and shamed it into being. The second chairman, Harvey M. Meyerhoff of Baltimore, long known here as philanthropist and builder, was the practical manager, fund-raiser, organizer and donor without whom the memorial museum would not have gone up.

VTC For the White House personnel office to dismiss Mr. Meyerhoff, a registered Democrat, because President Reagan appointed him in early 1987, demeans this somber effort at education and remembrance with cheap politics. Mr. Meyerhoff and the vice chairman, William J. Lowenberg, were told to step down May 1. Mr. Meyerhoff did not get this task for party loyalty, but because he could do it. The Holocaust Memorial Museum belongs to all Americans, which is as the law established it and how Mr. Meyerhoff implemented it and, surely, what President Clinton would insist it be if he gave the matter thought.

The law provides for 55 public members of the 65-member Council appointed by the president to 5-year terms, 11 each year, with the chairman and vice chairman appointed from among them for 5-year terms. So in due course, any Republican tint that occurred in the 1980s would recede. In due course, Mr. Meyerhoff could have expected to be asked to step aside after a job well done. But, possibly in a struggle to appoint the next museum director for whom an orderly search was under way, this was done precipitately and obnoxiously.

Thanks to the loyalty, generosity and professionalism of staff and council, this insult is not likely to be allowed to derail the solemn events of the coming weeks. That Mr. Meyerhoff and Mr. Lowenberg deserved better is unimportant in the long run. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and Museum deserved better.

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