Putting Politics Aside

Library of Congress Opens John W. Kluge Center

Posted May 7, 2003 at 3:34pm

Just across the street from the Capitol, within the walls of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, is a center of learning which aims to do the practically impossible in Washington: rise above politics.

“So many think tanks in Washington have a political agenda … and we are definitely not that,” said Director of Scholarly Programs Prosser Gifford, who heads the Library’s recently unveiled John W. Kluge Center.

Instead, the Kluge Center intends to serve as a catalyst for “a flow of knowledge with Members across the street,” said Library spokeswoman Helen Dalrymple.

Created as part of a $60 million endowment from billionaire Metromedia Co. President John Kluge in 2000, the center — which moved into a 12,700-square-foot colonnade in the Jefferson Building last summer — was officially opened by Kluge at a ceremony Wednesday.

“This place is so terrific. If I weren’t married, I’d marry [it],” Kluge said.

“Mr. Kluge’s schedule didn’t allow time until now,” said Dalrymple, explaining why the ribbon-cutting had been delayed.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), vice chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, said the center’s creation “closed that small gap that existed” in the Library’s offerings. “It’s got its own source of revenue so it won’t have to depend on contributions from people who try to link their contributions to a point of view,” he added.

The Kluge Center brings together a handful of eponymous scholars for 10-month stints — at the end of which they are required to deliver a presentation on their work — in the areas of countries and cultures of the North, American law and governance, modern culture, countries and cultures of the South, and technology and society. Twenty-five post-doctoral fellows — funded through the Mellon, Luce, and Rockefeller foundations, as well as a Kissinger scholar, two Kluge staff fellows, and distinguished visiting scholars — are also under the center’s umbrella.

Though in existence in its present location for less than a year, the center has already hosted a variety of high-profile events, including lectures by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, as well as a roundtable discussion on the legacy of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

To provide opportunities for Members to speak directly with the scholars, the center occasionally convenes breakfasts on topics relevant to a Congressional audience.

“It’s an opportunity for Members of Congress to ask questions of somebody who knows something about what the issue is,” said Gifford, pointing to a recent pre-Iraqi war breakfast with Islamic scholar Mohammed Arkoun.

On any given day, pre-eminent British military historian Sir Michael Howard, black historian and civil rights guru John Hope Franklin, or 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Noonan may be found poring over books and soon-to-be finished manuscripts.

Appropriately, the history of the House of Representatives is taking shape within the center’s mahogany walls.

As Distinguished Visiting Scholar of American History Robert Remini — who is currently writing the Congressional tome mandated by the 1999 History of the House Awareness and Preservation Act — said, the center’s resources were a key factor in his decision to undertake the project.

“When they asked me they said this [the center] is what we have in mind and that made it very attractive,” Remini asserted.

At the festivities honoring Kluge this week — which included a performance by veteran crooner Tony Bennett on the floor of the Library’s Main Reading Room — the Virginia Grand Military Band debuted “The Library of Congress March,” Sousa’s final unfinished work. Culled from the manuscript sketches and orchestrations of the Library’s John Philip Sousa Collection, the rousing march — reconstructed by composer Stephen Bulla — will now be incorporated into the U.S. Marine Band’s repertoire.

As for future plans, the center hopes to add two more scholarly chairs — one in Islamic studies, the other to be determined — this fall. It will also welcome its first former head of state — former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardozo — to take up residence as the Kluge chair for countries and cultures of the South.

In November, the center will select the recipient of the inaugural John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences, funded through the $60 million endowment. Billed by the center as comparable to the Nobel Prize in literature and economics, the $1 million lifetime achievement award will come with a short residence at the Library.

Kluge, chairman of the Library’s James Madison Council, a private-sector advisory body that supports the Library, is also a major contributor to the National Digital Library Program, the Library’s initiative to conserve digital media.