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Jeb Bush to chair Constitution Center

The top spot belonged first to a Bush and then to a Clinton. Now, in a familiar American formula, the National Constitution Center is turning again to a Bush.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will chair the Constitution Center.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will chair the Constitution Center. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)Read more

The top spot belonged first to a Bush and then to a Clinton. Now, in a familiar American formula, the National Constitution Center is turning again to a Bush.

The center announced Thursday that former Florida Gov. John Ellis "Jeb" Bush had been elected chairman of its board of trustees.

Bush, 59, who runs an education foundation and who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate in a theoretical race against Hillary Rodham Clinton, will succeed former President Bill Clinton, who has served as chairman since January 2009.

Former President George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush's father, served as board chairman of the center in 2007-08. The center opened in July 2003.

Jeb Bush said he hoped to get a few more people "who love America" to write checks to the center.

"I'm not a big shot, but I will work to expand the footprint of the museum around the country," he said. "This should be a national museum and it is."

The museum on Independence Mall, which bestows the Liberty Medal every year, faces uncertain times: a muddled identity, a vacant executive director spot, and financial problems blamed in part on disappointing response to a Bruce Springsteen exhibit.

The chairmanship appears to carry a bit of cachet that the museum itself may not always achieve.

Unlike the center's "American Spirits" exhibit on Prohibition, where just a handful of people wandered among temperance posters, hard-cider jugs, church pews, and the climactic faux speakeasy on Thursday afternoon, its embargoed Bush announcement in an upstairs auditorium drew a full house.

A hoarse-sounding Bill Clinton appeared larger than life via video, praising both father and son Bush for their bipartisanship and commitment to the ideals of the Constitution.

Jeb Bush will begin his unpaid two-year term on Jan. 13. He said he was honored to accept the post held by his father and Bill Clinton, whom he called his "brother from another mother," citing Clinton's close relationship with his father in their postpresidential lives.

"These guys are really close," he said.

He said that he called his father before accepting the position and that his father told him, "You don't have to do this," but, he said, "after five seconds, I knew he really wanted me to."

He said he hoped the center could be part of the emerging conversation about core curriculum standards, with which his education foundation is involved.

Bush said he had engaged in some hard-core reading of late, including the third volume of William Manchester's Churchill biography and Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, which examines the Boston suburb of Belmont and Philadelphia's Fishtown during the last 50 years.

He called the Murray book "a call to arms that gets my juices flowing." "The past is prologue," he said. "There is going to be a time of cultural change and, typically, these have been done in ways that people didn't anticipate."

Bush demurred when asked about the 2016 presidential race. He also declined to take a position on whether the center's Springsteen exhibit was a good idea.

He said reengaging citizens in civic discourse and familiarizing people with the historic forging of the Constitution - an achievement that he said made the current challenge of avoiding the fiscal cliff seem relatively simple - was of vital importance.

"To imagine a group of disparate people being able to forge something of unity and common purpose. If they can do that, we can solve the fiscal cliff problem," he said.

Created, as former Gov. Ed Rendell noted Thursday, by an act of Congress and dedicated to the ideals of the Constitution, the museum has been searching for momentum.

Exhibits designed for popular appeal - Springsteen, Prohibition, Princess Diana - have not led the center to sure financial footing, and may have diluted its identity and mission.

Its executive director, David Eisner, resigned over the summer after the Springsteen exhibit, which he championed, fell way short of expected attendance. A proposed 2013 budget called for eliminating 17 staff positions, about 10 percent of the center's jobs. (Some positions are already vacant.)

Doug DeVos, chairman of the center's executive committee, and Rendell, board vice chair, acknowledged that the center needed to diversify its own board, which was represented at the announcement by 11 white men, although there are a handful of women and minorities on the board who were not in attendance.

Vince Stango, interim president and CEO of the center, said he hoped Bush's dedication to education and civic engagement would inform the museum's mission.

"As we build a world-class museum experience, a national town hall for constitutional discourse, and a top-notch civic education hub for students and teachers, Gov. Bush's leadership will guide us to an exciting, thriving future," he said.