Newt on Art: Does He Mean It?
by L. Brent Bozell III
Something - principle... desperation... a spring breeze...
-- has motivated Newt Gingrich to stiffen his spine on the topic of federal
arts funding. The Speaker may revert to what some claim to be an
all-too-frequent jellyfish mode, but for the time being, the right feels
After talking tough to the thugs who run China, now comes
the hard part: Gingrich proposes to stand up to the arts establishment and
call for the elimination of the NEA. Though he deserves credit for speaking
out, let us remember that it was only two years ago, in the heady days of
the Republican revolution, when such talk was GOP House orthodoxy, and the
legislation to carry out this task a veritable fait accomplish.
To criticize federal funding for obscene art is simply to
articulate common sense, and to oppose federal arts funding is merely to
assert basic conservative doctrine, period. But this time Gingrich went the
extra mile to put some of the NEA's most prominent advocates, the megabuck
celebrities, on the defensive. "If the people who come to lobby us who
are famous and rich [would] dedicate one percent of their gross income to an
American Endowment for the Arts," Gingrich declared, "they would
fund a bigger system than the National Endowment... [Stars] should not come
[to Capitol Hill] to ask us to raise taxes on $24,000-a-year workers in
order to transfer the money to New York and California."
A case in point is New York's Whitney Museum, to which the
NEA gave $400,000 the same day that Gingrich made his remarks. What can one
see at the Whitney? For one thing, according to the Kansas City Star, a
"wildly perverted Santa's workshop" in which the characters,
covered with chocolate sauce, "perform... lewd acts with stuffed
animals." Also displayed at the museum are still photos from
"Watermelon Woman," an NEA-funded movie about black lesbians.
Gingrich, of course, is arguing not for a reformed NEA
that would stop funding only projects like those at the Whitney, but rather
for the NEA's abolition. But is he sincere? Two incidents from earlier this
year give cause for skepticism. On March 11, several actors, including the
liberal blowhard Alec Baldwin, descended on the Capitol to press for arts
funding. Baldwin and his fellow lobbyists-for-a-day were in the office of
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and asked him to arrange for them a meeting with
Gingrich. Foley called Gingrich, who agreed to the request. Baldwin later
opined that he was "impressed with... Gingrich regarding this
Already upset with Newt's public overtures to Jesse
Jackson, the Baldwin meeting represented, in the eyes of many conservatives,
another nonsensical overture to the enemy. And make no mistake, Baldwin
hates conservatives. He's a fiercely partisan bore at best, an intemperate
extremist at worst. In the February edition of Us magazine, for example, he
raged, "The people who run the Republican Party... are really rotten,
nasty, horrible human beings [who] want to hurt" Bill Clinton. After
the interviewer asked who these "evil men" might be, the first
words out of Baldwin's mouth were, "Newt Gingrich."
Harsh rhetoric aside, there's the narrower question of
Baldwin and Gingrich's sharp disagreement over the NEA. In 1995, Gingrich
stated that the Endowment supplied "art patronage for an elite group...
and fund[ed] avant-garde people who are explicitly not accepted by most of
the taxpayers who are coerced into paying for it."
So why huddle with a man who despises your movement and
whose whole purpose for meeting was to salvage that which Newt had pledged
to terminate? It can't be that the Speaker was unaware of Baldwin's
positions. Us is not an obscure magazine. Its circulation is 1.1 million,
and its total readership is estimated at 4.5 million. Quite simply, it was
poor political judgment, if not a signal that Gingrich's position on NEA
funding was changing.
Gingrich squandered more conservative good will on
February 12. The Weekly Standard reported that at a Washington dinner
honoring Ward Connerly, the force behind the California Civil Rights
Initiative, Gingrich delivered a stirring anti-affirmative action speech and
was rewarded with a standing ovation. Later that evening, though, the
Speaker said that legislation proposed by Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.)
outlawing federally sponsored affirmative action was not "a top
priority." Canady, according to the Standard, "call[ed] the
discrepancy between Gingrich's words and deeds 'bizarre.'"
As it would be if Gingrich backed down from his current
position on the NEA. This issue is a test for Newt and his leadership
abilities. If he stands firm, he burnishes his credentials to lead on the
budget and taxes. If he doesn't, it could be the last straw for many of his
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