Friday, December 14, 2018

Part XIV: The Way Mike Worked -- How the Contract with America bit the NEA on the ass

The story resumes...

It's been a few weeks, but today I get back to my series "The Way Mike Worked," based on the Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit "The Way We Worked," featured in the Cheyenne library this fall. I've been busy with my novel and some free-lance writing assignments. These later chapters of my saga also take some research, as they deal with my time as an arts bureaucrat at the Wyoming Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. I lived the first four decades of my life clueless about the world of arts administration. For the ensuing 27 years, I lived and worked in that world. I'm still active as a volunteer. My hope is that we all will get a chance to promote the arts in our communities. Taking an active role in creativity may save us all. It may not, but we will have a much better time along the way.

On that day in D.C., I witnessed history.

On Tuesday, September 27, 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich assembled 300 Republican candidates for a photo op in front of the U.S. Capitol. The occasion was the signing of the Contract with America, a document designed by Newt that featured 10 bills that Republicans hoped to pass once the 1994 Mid-term Red Wave led to a Republican majority.

I was just starting my second year in D.C. and still a new hand at inside-the-beltway politics. Did I have a gut feeling that Gingrich's contract would change my life? Not really. Curiosity moved me. That, and a request from my National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) boss that it would be good to keep an eye on Gingrich and his pals as we closed in on the November mid-term election.

That day, I skipped my usual Metro Station stop that led to a two-block walk to NEA offices in the Old Post Office, now a Trump Hotel. I rode all the way to Union Station to take in the event. Republicans had been promoting the gathering for weeks and I was curious. I also had a feeling that it would affect my stint at the NEA. Newt had waged war on Democratic Party policies since his election to Congress in 1979. He had been active in the culture wars, a vanguard in the Religious Right's fight against the NEA, NEH, sacrilegious art, naked art, hip-hop -- any creative strain within 1990s America that threatened The Word in the Bible and U.S. supremacy in the secular world. Not exactly the opening salvo in the struggle but one that would steer politics right into the Trump era.

In late September, D.C.'s oppressive summer bubble of heat and humidity was just beginning to release its grip. But that day at the Capitol, a Republican fever dream was being born in Newt's image.

On this day, Newt launched a war against Democratic Party policies. Total war, akin to Sherman's March through Georgia, which Newt wrote about in one of his novels that I never read. A continuation of Nixon's Southern Strategy, which convinced Southern whites that Republicans were on God's side and Democrats had forged an evil alliance with ethnic minorities, feminists, gays, and college-educated pacifists. It wasn't just that Dem policies were misguided and needed correcting. It was that the Dems were the enemy and needed to be crushed. It was like a Newt Gingrich alternative history. Except it was real and, like the Civil War, had lasting consequences.

Newt wasn't content with writing alternative histories. He actually wanted to make history. Whatever the subject, Newt wrote a book. He's written 18 non-fiction titles. He's authored or co-authored at least a dozen fiction titles. You have to hand it to him. Hatching an idea, writing, revising, finishing, publishing and promoting -- the writer's life is not for the meek. Newt had a platform, still does if you look at the plethora of new titles. It is clear he had a vision and he could write. This one-two punch proved dangerous for the liberal agenda. It was a gift to conservatives waging the culture wars.

As Newt bragged at that 1994 event:“Today, on these steps, we offer this contract as a first step towards renewing American civilization."

What did you do in the culture wars, daddy?

I am a veteran of the culture wars. I don't have any medals and I don't brag about my service. I'm a survivor, which is something to be proud of. For 25 years, I worked to nurture the arts on the local, state, regional and national level. It was fun and heart-breaking. I'm here to tell the story.

What, exactly, are the culture wars? The most significant battle on the national front was waged over explicit photographs of nude gay men and a photo of a crucifix soaked (allegedly) in a container filled with an artist's urine. The NEA helped fund a grant that funded the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibit at DC.'s Corcoran Gallery. The crucifix art, "Piss Christ", won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art "Awards for Artists," also funded by the NEA. Hysterical press coverage followed and evangelical yokels such as Sen. Jesse Helms and  Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell stirred up their followers with tales of blasphemy and obscenity and misuse of taxpayer dollars because, as you know, the national arts budget is so bloated that it puts the defense budget to shame.  

Pause for laughter.

Meanwhile, the NEA found itself in the middle of a lawsuit when it yanked fellowships of four artists for their ostensibly offensive art. All of these offending artists were linked with Satan and all of the Coastal Elites. Pres. Clinton, an evangelical from Arkansas raised by a single mother, was somehow one of those elites. The Republicans aimed to sabotage every one of his programs. This wasn't the first time a combative Congress took on the opposition's sitting president. But it led to all the battles yet to come. 

When confronted with an African-American Democrat as president (a guy who made good the hard way), Republican leaders vowed that none of his programs would become the law of the land. What they failed to obliterate then, they now put in the ruinous hands of the current benighted resident of the Oval Office. The battle will now be joined by the new Democratic majority in the House. Let's hope that the Democrats' tendency for appeasement has been replaced by a need to kick ass and take names. There are some encouraging signs, such as Rep. Pelosi taking Trump to the woodshed this week over the government shutdown.

Let's get back to Newt. His goal was to destroy the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Museum and Library Services Office (MLS), all part of the same funding bill. That was not as easy as it sounded. Newt, in fact, ran into what other conservatives have discovered over the years, that Republicans support the arts and many have children who are schooled in the arts and grow up to become artists, arts consumers, even arts patrons. They have museums and performing arts centers named after them. They weren't so sure that depriving their city's symphony/art museum/ballet of tax dollars was the proper thing to do. They appealed to their moderate Republican Congresspeople (there were moderate Republicans back then) to teach the Democrats a lesson but don't go overboard for goodness sake.

Newt was faced with a problem. How to satisfy the newly-elected rural-state rabble-rousers and their urban and suburban counterparts who had all of the money. Cuts came, as did compromises. The Right liked the fact that the 1996 federal budget cut funding for the arts almost in half and eliminated troublesome fellowships in visual and performing arts. Newt could declare victory and his colleagues could brag about their success out in the hinterlands. And get re-elected in '96.

It led to my early departure from the NEA and a return to my job in Wyoming. It also had other results that were less well-known. The survival of the literary fellowships. That's a story in itself and worth another post. But first, I have to go back 20-some years and do some research. I like research, although sometimes its tentacles grab me and won't let go..

Next chapter: Newt Gingrich, the writer's friend?

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