Among the many surprises of Barack Obama’s presidency, perhaps the most unexpected have been his appointments to the federal government’s egghead agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Even his ardent admirers might admit that the current president’s selections were sub-Bushian.
It was an article of faith with Obama’s snootier acolytes that George W. Bush was a philistine and a moron. (“Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot” was stripped across the bumper of many a Prius puttering around the reality-based community back in the day.) In fact Bush’s appointments showed he took the cultural agencies seriously. If not a man of high culture himself, he knew one when he saw one. To the NEH he brought a world-class historian of Renaissance painting, Bruce Cole. He selected Dana Gioia, one of the country’s most admired poets and literary critics, to lead the NEA.
Although unusually accomplished, these men were in line with the appointments of previous presidents, who generally picked their chairmen from the country’s large reserve of artists, scholars, and arts administrators. Even Bill Clinton had the inspired idea to pick the celebrated actress Jane Alexander to run his NEA. And he’s from Arkansas.
But Barack Obama? Memoirist, prose stylist of distinction, resident of Hyde Park, prowler of used bookstores, professor of constitutional law? The man whom Michael Beschloss (Distinguished Professor of History, Charlie Rose Tech) called “probably the smartest guy ever to become president”? Surely he would use the opportunity to look beyond the things that divide us as Americans and, drawing on our core common values that we all share as Americans, appoint chairmen who could lift us up and speak to the heart of the American narrative about who we are as Americans. Some artist or scholar—a well-known pottery maker, even. A macramé artist. Pete Seeger. I don’t know.
No, though. Instead Obama has used the agency chairmanships as spoils of political hackery. To run the NEA, he appointed a Broadway producer (“Big River”) named Rocco Landesman, whose chief qualification for the job was to share a business office with one of Obama’s most fertile fundraising “bundlers,” another Broadway producer (“Hairspray”) called Margo Lion, whose generosity earned her a place atop Obama’s “arts policy committee.”
Not a brainiac, Landesman first broke into public consciousness with a speech declaring that Obama is “the most powerful writer since Caesar.” The claim wasn’t as ludicrous as it first sounds—Landesman meant that the president was the most politically powerful person since Caesar who could also be thought of as a writer—but it was still pretty ludicrous.
“This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt,” Landesman said, “and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.” Good thing he inserted that indispensable fudge word “arguably.” Obama is indeed the first president to have written his own books since Teddy Roosevelt, but only if you don’t count Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and, arguably, Bill Clinton. And Obama couldn’t be the first president to write his books really well since Lincoln because he, -Lincoln, didn’t write any.
Obama made an even odder choice to run the NEH. Jim Leach is a former Republican congressman from Iowa whose only credential in the humanities seems to be his cofounding of the Congressional Humanities Caucus in 2004, after he had been in Congress for 27 years. His other qualifications must have struck the president as more decisive. Leach was perhaps the earliest prominent Republican to endorse Obama for president, an endorsement he throatily reiterated in a full-dress speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Leach’s Obamaphilia didn’t come as a complete surprise. In his 30 years in Congress, he earned a reputation among the mainstream press as a “Reasonable Republican” who could be counted on to rise above petty partisanship. In ordinary language, this meant he was a liberal Republican who voted with Democrats on crucial issues like abortion rights, campaign finance, and environmental regulation. His annual rating from Americans for Democratic Action was sometimes double his rating from the American Conservative Union.