(Artvoice 7 June 2001)

Right Turn at NEH

by Bruce Jackson

President George W. Bush announced last week that he would not reappoint Bill Ferris chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities when Ferris’s four-year term expires this fall, but instead would replace him with 63-year-old Bruce Cole, distinguished professor in the Henry Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University.

Ferris was a Clinton appointee and presidents often want their own people running agencies whose work is near and dear to their hearts. But who ever had any indication that Dubya even knew we had a National Endowment for the Humanities? He’s never shown any interest in the arts or humanities before and it’s unlikely he has developed a passion for them in his four months in the capitol. More important, Mississippi’s two Republican senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both urged him to keep Ferris on. At the time of that request, Lott was still Senate majority leader, someone whose goodwill Bush would, presumably, want to nourish. Why risk antagonizing him over an agency with a mere $112,000,000 budget—barely pocket change in current capitol terms?

With only a few bumps, Ferris has been an enormously popular chair of NEH. Clinton nominated him on Oct 23, 1997, three days before the Senate was to adjourn and the word in Washington was that he wouldn’t be confirmed until sometime in 1998. But the Senate acted on the nomination almost immediately, voting unanimously for it, and he was sworn in Nov 17. He is credited with doing a lot to depoliticize the Endowment and for funding projects in smaller states and encouraging populist projects, expanding the range of citizen participation in Endowment offerings. There was a big flap when the National Council invited Bill Clinton to give the Endowment’s prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 1999, but that was none of Ferris’s doing and the row died down soon after Clinton declined the invitation. There was another flurry when Jefferson Lecturer Arthur Miller said some things about the state of the nation some arch-conservatives didn’t like, but they got over that as well. People in Washington liked Ferris and, as of the time Bush dumped him, he had a lot of support across the political spectrum.

So why did Bush replace him with an art historian from Indiana?

In all likelihood, the answer probably has nothing to do with George W. Bush but rather with Lynne Cheney, the wife of Bush’s vice president.  She was NEH chair from 1986 to 1993 and she was even more right-wing in her management of the Endowment than her predecessor, William Bennett ( who left the Endowment to become Reagan’s Secretary of Education and who later found his true calling as George Bush I’s drug czar and, after that, as the author of best-sellers about morality). During the Bennett-Cheney years NEH all but stopped funding projects that looked at aspects of American society or history critically. “The humanities,” Bennett famously said, “are in the past,” and Cheney took up that banner by pouring megabucks into saccharine, safe and correct projects, like Ken Burns’s “The Civil War,” and by taking the NEH logo off and cutting NEH funding for the highly regarded PBS series, “The Africans,” because she disapproved of its politics.

Cheney was the only one of the NEH’s seven directors to turn the Endowment into a vanity press. She used Endowment funds to publish American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation’s Schools, 1987; Humanities in America: A Report to the President, the Congress and the American People, 1988; 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, 1989; Tyrannical Machines: A Report on Educational Practices Gone Wrong and Our Best Hopes for Setting them Right, 1990; National Tests: What Other Countries Expect Their Students to Know, 1991; Telling the Truth: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, 1992. If these titles strike you more as ideological tracts about education than reports on what the NEH was doing or ought to be doing, you’re right.

Cheney was not only one of the Endowment’s two most ideology-driven chairs, she was also the most vigorous in packing the Endowment’s National Council with people of her political stripe. The Council has 26 members serving staggered terms, all appointed by the president. With rare exceptions, presidents rubber stamp nominations from the Endowment’s chair.  Cheney worked hard to appoint ideological conservatives, people whose politics were at least as important as their understanding of and appreciation for the humanities.

Bruce Cole was one of Cheney’s people on the National Council. She brought him on in 1992, a year before Clinton replaced her with Sheldon Hackney, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, and he remained a member until 1999.

Cole is far more qualified than Cheney, who got the job solely because of her political connections. He has degrees from Western Reserve and Oberlin, and his Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr. He has published 12 scholarly and popular books, most on the Italian Renaissance, the best known of them about Giotto and Titian. He has had Guggenheim, American Council of Learned Societies, NEH, and other fellowships. Art history is one of those academic fields that takes a huge amount of knowledge to do well.

Cheney was always outspoken about her political leanings; Cole has kept his own counsel, at least in public. Other than his appointments to the NEH National Council in 1992 and his recent nomination to chair NEH, the only things Lexis or Googol searches produced about him were the titles of two papers at the conservative Association for Art History (which he helped found and of which he is now co-president) and a very brief and generalized biographical note on the web site of Indiana University’s distinguished professors. If he’s got political axes to grind, he’s kept them from the public thus far.

The scary thing is that he is Lynne Cheney’s protege, and that is scary for two reasons. One, she is a true heir of the reactionary Bill Bennett. After her term as chair of NEH she advocated destruction of both National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities because neither, she said, was in the national interest.  Her sense of the humanities is narrow and parochial and elitist, and her vision of government involvement in the arts and humanities is restrictive and punitive. Second, the appointment of her protege to chair NEH is one more indication of how closely Vice President Cheney is controlling decision-making in the White House.

Will the NEH turn into the kind of right wing ideological fortress it was during Bennett’s and Cheney’s years? Sixteen members of the Endowment’s National Council come up for reappointment or replacement in the next three years. When we see who Cole and Bush choose to fill those positions, we’ll know whether intellect or right-wing politics rules in the Endowment’s executive suite.

Click here for a timeline of NEH’s development,
Click here for a list of the current members of the NEH National Council

Bruce Jackson's photo of Bill Ferris: near William Faulkner's grave in St. Peter's Cemetery, Oxford, MS, July 1997.