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Days at the Museum
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009

Dillon Ripley stories still echo throughout the Smithsonian: how he’d pick up the phone and call a curator to chat, how he lay down on a museum floor to show guards how to deal with possible demonstrators, how he insisted that priceless musical instruments be taken out of their cases and played, how he’d ride on the carousel he had installed across from the Castle. He also was a presence around town.

Thomas Lovejoy says the financial burdens facing the Smithsonian today require another such dynamic leader. “It’s going to take a real partnership with Congress in a way that’s been hard to achieve in the last 20 years but which did exist before,” he says. “In the Ripley era, the secretary had the right personality and outlook and he managed to be part of the Washington scene in a very natural way, so everybody was buying into the excitement of the Smithsonian.” Lovejoy says Clough appears to fit the bill: “He’s outgoing. At the same time, he’s low-key in a good kind of way. He will get out of the Castle.”

“They’ve plugged right in,” Rusty Powell says of the Cloughs. “This is not a man who sits in an ivory tower.”

Roger Sant and others have introduced the newcomer—the Smithsonian’s first secretary from the South, whom Sant calls Mr. Atlanta—to the Washington scene. Sant has taken Clough to the Alibi Club, the elite men’s club, and to National Gallery of Art and National Symphony galas, and hosted a dinner party to introduce the Cloughs to other cultural leaders.

Clough hit it off particularly well with James Billington, longtime Librarian of Congress. The two talked about moving their organizations into the digital world and, more generally, the history of the cultural and intellectual life of Washington. Billington says he’s been impressed by Clough’s combination of excitement about the challenges of his new job and his “relaxed, good-humored approach to it.”

Clough says he’d been thinking of taking a sabbatical when he was approached about the Smithsonian job. His first thought: “Are they nuts? I’m not sure I’m the right person.” But as he started looking into the institution and realizing the scope of the enterprise—he now calls it “the most visible best-kept secret in the world”—he felt that no one since Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson would have had the breadth of experience to match the Smithsonian, so why not him?

“I felt I had a lot of the portfolio that was needed,” Clough says. “Nobody could have it all.” His wife thought it would be an adventure.

His new boss, chief justice Roberts, took him around the Supreme Court one day last year and showed him where everybody sat. He pointed to one chair, Clough recalls, and said, “This guy over here is the smartest guy on the Supreme Court and the most productive. Justice Stevens. He’s 88.”

Clough says he doesn’t plan to be Smithsonian secretary until he’s 88, though most members of his family have worked well past retirement age, he notes. But he says he wants to seize this time in the Smithsonian’s history and build a foundation for a new era.

“He’s a guy who will try to do the right thing,” says Kurin. “However long he’s here, I think he’ll prove to have played a major role in setting a path for the Smithsonian for the next generation.” 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles