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Failed Diplomacy: Can Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian’s New Secretary, Out-Bully the Bully-in-Chief?

I was jolted by several seismic “did-he-really-say-that?” shocks while reading Peggy McGlone‘s excerpts in the Washington Post from Lonnie Bunch III‘s upcoming memoir about the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bunch founded and led the NMAAHC before his promotion in June to the top spot at the Smithsonian Institution (which oversees the African American museum):

Cover of Lonnie Bunch’s new book, published by Smithsonian Books

Judging from his imprudent published pronouncements, it appears to me that Secretary Bunch may feel so estranged (arguably with good reason) from the Trump Presidency that he’s cast aside his own previous self-description as “a Washington diplomat.” An employee of a federal institution, Bunch has now publicly disparaged a boss well known for punishing signs of disloyalty.

Below are a few excerpts from McGlone’s advance look at Bunch’s throw-caution-to-the-winds chronicle. Her report begins with Bunch’s account of the private tour of NMAAHC that he gave to Trump in February 2017. (It opened to the public in September 2016, during President Obama‘s administration.)

As I wrote in my admiring review of the museum, its introductory section, enriched by objects from the Smithsonian and other collections, rewrites the saccharine narrative of standard school textbooks that gloss over the disturbing details about the shameful aspects of our country’s early history.

Here’s Lonnie describing Donny’s glib, insensitive reaction to the early galleries in the NMAAHC’s chronological installation (as reported by McGlone):

His aides told Bunch that Trump “was in a foul mood and that he did not want to see anything ‘difficult,’ ” Bunch writes [in his new book]. Nevertheless, Bunch started the tour in the history galleries, which begin with the global slave trade.

“It was not my job to make the rough edges of history smooth, even for the president,” he writes….

“The president paused in front of the exhibit that discussed the role of the Dutch in the slave trade,” Bunch writes. “As he pondered the label I felt that maybe he was paying attention to the work of the museum. He quickly proved me wrong. As he turned from the display he said to me, ‘You know, they love me in the Netherlands.’ All I could say was let’s continue walking….

“I was so disappointed in his response to one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history,” he continues. “Here was a chance to broaden the views and the understanding of the incoming president and I had been less successful than I had expected.”

Visitors engrossed by NMAAHC’s introductory display on the early history of the slave trade
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The most direct attack on Trump that is reported in McGlone’s quoted passages from Bunch’s book holds the President partly to blame for the escalation of our country’s racial tensions:

His administration’s combative relationship with many in the African American community—from his feuding with Congressman John Lewis. . . to the attacks on professional athletes, the overwhelming number of those singled out for critical tweets were African American, to his refusal to criticize the white supremacists whose rioting in Charlottesville, Virginia led to the death of Heather Heyer [my link, not McGlone’s]—have deepened the racial divide.

Bunch also referred to his museum’s role in inspiring hope in its visitors that “the current poisonous political partisanship and racial antipathy [emphasis added] will one day be overcome.” (Cue the civil rights anthem.)

For all that I share his dismay over Trump’s fanning the flames of our country’s diversity adversities, Bunch’s pointed, provocative pronouncements, aimed at the President, could sabotage the Secretary’s track record of consensus-building—a talent that enabled him to garner widespread support for the NMAAHC.

President Trump with Lonnie Bunch & David Skorton, then Smithsonian Secretary, at the NMAAHC after his tour of the museum with its director
Screenshot from the press conference, Feb. 21, 2017

In my favorable assessment of Bunch at the time he was named to his new gig, I suggested that he would be adroit in handling the prickly President and navigating Washington’s political minefields (as was his short-termed predecessor as Secretary, David Skorton, above, who helpfully removed Trump’s lapel microphone after the NMAAHC press conference, as seen at the end of this video).

Now, I’m not so sure that my sanguine Bunch hunch was accurate.

After he became Secretary-elect, Bunch told Smithsonian Magazine: “In a national museum, you’ve got to build the allies and the support….The key is to do the right thing, and then to build the kind of relationships that allow you to do the presentations you want [emphasis added].” He mentioned the importance of being “conversive with Congress” and “let[ting] the [Smithsonian] Regents know [what you’re doing]….Do the work that’s important but also make sure that you build the alliances to protect you.”

Perhaps he should have added: “Don’t needlessly antagonize the guy at the top”—a capricious boss, notorious for saying, “You’re fired!” Although the Secretary is appointed by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents (not the President), Trump does need to sign off on any newly nominated citizen-members of the Regents, after they are nominated by the board and approved by Congress.

Carelessly jeopardizing Trump’s support to score political points (and, in so doing, endangering support from Republicans in Congress, which controls the purse strings) is a temptation to be avoided by someone who hopes to be a long-tenured, successful leader of a federal institution.

Published by Smithsonian Books, Bunch’s risky tell-all (which might have been more appropriately issued after his eventual departure from the Smithsonian) goes on sale Sept. 24—the third anniversary of NMAAHC’s opening. I’m not sure why Bunch titled it, “A Fool’s Errand,” but I hope he’s not fool enough to rashly blow the opportunity that he has so masterfully seized.

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