Gay marriage debates? Rebuilding Iraq? The Constitution Center's new boss wants it to be more than a musty museum

Journalist Rick Stengel has spent his career dallying in different careers — professor, author, political speechwriter — but has always returned to Time magazine, where he was a writer and editor for almost 20 years. His latest move: He's the new president of the National Constitution Center, the months-old Independence Mall behemoth that mixes the missions of museum, think tank, media platform, and venue of international conciliation. Stengel's goal is to deliver the lively, timely relevance of a newsweekly, albeit without the gloss and insatiable curiosity about the historical Jesus. In other words, the former Princeton basketball star wants to make the Constitution Center a living, breathing institution — not just a building about an old piece of paper.

Stengel, 48, who covered two presidential campaigns and (as an adviser to Bill Bradley in 2000) worked on a third, will watch this year's race from a curatorial perspective. “There's a problem in public discourse: We have shouting on the left and shouting on the right, with nobody reasonable in the center,” he says. The Constitution Center, Stengel believes, can occupy that space. “You can take anything on the front page of the Inquirer and the Times, and I can tell you why it has something to do with the Constitution,” he says, suggesting that his Constitution Center may host debates on issues like gay marriage and get a piece of the nation-building business as Iraq and Afghanistan work on their own constitutions. While collaborating with Nelson Mandela on his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, Stengel was present as South Africa set out to design its first post-apartheid government. He parodies the gentle questions Mandela would put to him, hoping to learn from the American experience: “Ree-chah-d, what ees federaleesm?”