You’ve spent most of your career as a law professor and the legal affairs editor at the New Republic. Why move to Philly to take over the Constitution Center?
I had the best job in the world as a law professor and a journalist. But when the Constitution Center approached me, I realized this was the best job in the world.
My great passion in life has been moderating constitutional conversations. And the Constitution Center is the one place in America, in the world, that’s uniquely qualified to do just that.
Tell me what changes you’re planning.
We have three missions. We are the museum of We the People; we are America’s town hall; and we are a center for civic education. So as the museum of We the People, we are about to transform our exhibition space—starting next year, we have the honor of displaying one of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights that were sent out to the states to be ratified. It’s been at the New York Public Library for a hundred years, and it will initially be at the National Constitution Center for three years, starting in 2014.
You’re also planning more conversations and debates.
We’re already exploring partnerships with major media organizations. We had a wonderful pilot experiment at the end of the Supreme Court term that just ended where we had scholars, nominated by liberal and conservative lawyers’ groups, who debated the issues as they came down. Moderating some of those debates was one of the most moving things I’ve experienced.
I did find it moving. These are people who often clash with each other, and just to see them engaging, and in some cases coming to areas of agreement, was moving.
Sounds like the opposite of cable news.
[laughs] I think that’s what the framers had in mind.
The center has always had some star power attached to it, but it’s struggled to find its identity.
The focus has waxed and waned over the years. I think it’s gotten distracted—things like the Bruce Springsteen and Diana exhibits would be examples for me of that.
You’ve actually been connected to the center since its inception.
The founding president was my great friend Joe Torsella, a friend from graduate school, and he brought me in for some of the early discussions. And I was a visiting scholar in 2003, where I would stand in the permanent exhibition space and give twice-a-day talks on the Constitution like a vaudevillian, basically trying to attract passersby and engage them.
You made an appearance on The Colbert Report recently. How did that compare to, say, talking to a Supreme Court justice?
[laughs] Quite different. I had the privilege of sitting down with Justice Kagan a few weeks later. What unites them both is that they have a great sense of humor. That’s obvious for Colbert, but many people hadn’t seen Justice Kagan’s sense of humor, and I thought her story of how she came to go wild-deer-hunting with Justice Scalia in Wyoming was absolutely hysterical.
True you’re living in a spare bedroom near Fitler Square?
When my friend, who’s generously opened his house to me, is there, we’re like the Odd Couple. I’m loving the neighborhood. And also loving the chance to walk to work.
When Hillary Clinton was in town to receive the Liberty Medal this week, did you take her on the Jeff Rosen tour of Philadelphia?
She [had] much better things to do. [laughs] But we [were] especially thrilled that she [was] given the medal by our chair, Jeb Bush. This is a bipartisan moment about which we are very proud.
This story originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.