WASHINGTON – Seeking well-heeled professionals to contemplate one of the grimmest episodes in human history. Requirements include lots of time on your hands and an ability to cull meaning from savagery.
And it helps to be on a first-name basis with the most powerful person on earth.
Far below the stratospheric rivals who now occupy President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet-select, the Chicago machine cogs who will move and shake his White House, the big-name donors who will win prized ambassadorships, even the second-tier assistant deputies to the deputy assistants, are those backers of the president who seek placement on one of an array of honorary committees.
And no committee’s work is more somber and less given to the cocktail party circuit than the 55-member governing council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There’s no rush for the positions, unlike the socialites who hanker for spots on the high-profile, high-prestige arts and culture boards.
Each year the president appoints 11 council members to five-year terms; the 55 appointees serve alongside 10 representatives from the U.S. Congress and a representative each from the state, interior and education departments.
Noam Neusner, a White House liaison to the Jewish community in President Bush’s first term, said it was more of a matter of the Bush administration reaching out to people in a position to contribute to the museum than a rush of applications.
“I can’t recall people being aggressive,” Neusner said. “As far as I know, only a handful of people” coveted a council seat above all other possible appointments.
Those who wanted a council seat were likely to get it just by expressing interest, as long as they had the requisite relationship with the president, said Michael Gelman, a Washington-area accountant who served two terms from 1993-2003 and backed former President Bill Clinton in his first presidential run.
“I made it known I was interested and I got the appointment,” Gelman said. “I was interested because the Holocaust museum was just starting up and it was an important institution.”
In addition to the sobriety of the museum’s mission, a disincentive is the relatively long term. As a result, council members were cultivated from disciplines that could promote the museum and its educational mission.
“Members were chosen because the council needs a variety of viewpoints,” Neusner said. “You’ve had good communicators in the public sphere, radio, TV and film, people who have had political roles, like [former New York Mayor] Ed Koch and [former Massachusetts] Gov. William Weld, who are familiar with how government works.”
Add to the list “people with skill sets in the business world who have to oversee a large institution,” Neusner said. “Like any corporate board you want multiple types of people. It helps to have independent people, people who are not deeply ingrained in the Holocaust academic and survivor communities, with fresh eyes” — although survivors also must be represented.
That was the philosophy that led Bush to appoint Fred Zeidman, a successful Houston-area lawyer and longtime backer, to chair the governing body, officially known as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. His status as an outsider from a community that was deeply committed to remembrance helped shape Bush’s determination to make the institution relevant to present-day genocide, Neusner said.
The museum has taken the lead in exposing the genocide in Darfur engineered by allies of the Sudanese government.
“The president has always had a very strong commitment to Holocaust memory, what it teaches free nations about protecting the innocent,” Neusner said.
Gelman said he wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything; the depth of his learning about the Holocaust and about World War II Europe has enriched him.
“I made a lot of friends I became very close to,” he said. “I gained a lot of respect for those who committed their lives to Holocaust education.”
Gelman recommends the experience — for those willing to serve.
“Some you only saw when they came to board meetings,” a handful of times a year, he recalled. “Some you never saw at all.”
Gelman is deeply involved in pro-Israel activism and Washington-area Jewish good works, but he says he misses his days on the museum council.
“I would go back on the board in a minute,” he said. “That says it more than anything else.”