The Armenian Orphan Rug: A relic or an insult?

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 13, 2013 

— A rug woven long ago by Armenian orphans is presenting the White House with a tough political knot.

Dozens of lawmakers from California and other states with large Armenian-American populations want the rug put on public display. White House officials insist the rug, for now, must remain in storage. The rising tension, reminiscent of past fights over congressional Armenian genocide resolutions, crosses both domestic and international borders.

“I’m sure it’s a touchy subject to some,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said in an interview Wednesday, “but this rug is important. This is something that’s important to a whole community.”

Valadao and 32 other House of Representatives members from both parties, including a dozen from California, signed a recent letter to the White House urging release of the rug from storage. They want it displayed, as some had originally hoped would happen at the famed Smithsonian Castle as part of a proposed reception for a new book, “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.”

Published by the Armenian Cultural Foundation, the 75-page book recounts the history of the roughly 12- by 18-foot rug that was presented to Coolidge in 1925. More than a poignant floor-covering, the rug commemorated U.S. aid for an orphanage that served young survivors of what the congressional letter termed “the Armenian Genocide.”

This is where the rug rekindles a long-running fight, as the rug’s congressional champions have been among those pushing a congressional Armenian genocide resolution that likewise faces high-level resistance. California Democrat Adam Schiff, who helped lead the rug letter-writing campaign along with Valadao, explicitly attributed the White House decision to diplomatic fears.

“It’s hard for me to reach any conclusion but that they don’t want to offend Turkey,” Schiff said in an interview Wednesday. “If that’s their motivation, that’s completely unacceptable.”

White House officials, though, discount speculation about their curatorial motives.

“Displaying the rug for only half a day in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property, would have required the White House to undertake the risk of transporting the rug for limited public exposure, and was not viewed as commensurate with the rug’s historical significance,” Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement Wednesday.

A White House official added Wednesday that the decision to keep the rug in storage, first reported by The Washington Post, “does not preclude” the possibility that it might be displayed sometime in the future. Schiff said he will be testing that proposition, as he plans to organize another event for which he will be seeking the rug or another one like it.

Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, stressed in an interview Wednesday that a Smithsonian cultural anthropologist, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia and a White House curator had only engaged in preliminary talks about the possibility of displaying the rug as part of a reception for the book. When the White House curator said it would not be possible, planning stopped.

“The event never got beyond the discussion stage,” Kremer said.

The event that never was, though, has since incited more debate over diplomacy, remembrance and political clout.

By some estimates, upward of 1.5 million Armenians died during the final spasms of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923. Historians and a number of governmental elected bodies have characterized the catastrophe as genocide, a term first recognized in international law in 1948 as referring to actions that are intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

This year’s House version of an Armenian genocide resolution, introduced by Valadao and Schiff in May, has attracted 45 co-sponsors so far. That is far less than is needed to move the measure along, especially in the face of a skeptical administration and a sensitive NATO ally.

Turkey strongly opposes any resolution that includes the phrase “Armenian genocide,” and the country’s officials have warned of dire diplomatic consequences if such a measure were to pass. The country has hired lobbyists, such as former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, to help make its case. Between mid-March and mid-July of this year, for instance, Gephardt personally called or met with some 40 House members on various Turkish issues, according to Justice Department foreign lobbying filings. Many other contacts were made by Gephardt’s co-workers.

Mustafa Sungur, a press counselor for the Turkish embassy, said Wednesday that Turkey did not have any communication or engagement with the U.S. government on the rug issue.

Behind the scenes, State Department and Pentagon officials have traditionally resisted such commemorative resolutions as well. The last time an Armenian genocide resolution came close to reaching the House floor, in 2007, 25 House members abruptly reversed course and dropped their support.

“The closer we’ve come to a vote, the more informed I’ve become,” then-Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., said at the time.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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