restricted access John Frohnmayer: Leaving Town Alive
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JohnFrohnmayer,GeorgeBush’spick,in1989,forheadoftheNational EndowmentfortheArts,ajobFrohnmayerkeptforthemostturbulent two and a half years in the endowment’s near 30-year history, hadn’t votedforthemanwhoselectedhim.Frohnmayer,alifelongRepublican, couldn’t vote for “a ticket that included Dan Quayle,” he writes in Leaving Town Alive, his memoir of his brief period of public service. Frohnmayer, who was fired during the early part of the 1992 presidential campaign, when George Bush was handing his party over to its far-right wing, should have known what was coming when he left Oregon, one son of a prominent legal and political family, for Washington , but he wanted the NEA job badly. He unsuccessfully had lobbied for it when Ronald Reagan had fist been elected president. This time around he got it and, if for no other reason, Frohnmayer’s memoir should be read as a valuable primer for how political jobs are obtained and what working for an administration is really like. One of the tales involves a political appointee to the NEA, whom Frohnmayer was obliged to keep on salary for $50,000 a year, whose only duty, as far as Frohnmayer could make out, was to be the mistress of a highly-placed government official. John Frohnmayer: Leaving Town Alive 154 155 Frohnmayer’s book certainly confirms everyone’s worst fears about Congress, the Bush administration, the arts “community,” Frohn­ mayer himself, and the religious right-wing fundraisers who rode the hobbyhorse of the NEA controversies (Andres Serrano’s photograph , “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos, Karen Finley’s body) to a stampede of successful fund raising. Had Robert Mapplethorpe not existed, the religious right-wing fundraisers would have had to invent him; it is clear, from Frohnmayer’s account of all these sorry battles, that homophobia fueled the cry for censorship more than run-of-the-mill “obscenity” (Karen Finley would have easily slipped by.) The budget for the NEA was seven million dollars when it began in1965,andhadonly grown to169million dollars by1988,less thanthe cost, as Frohnmayer points out, “of a single low-tech military aircraft,” less than the cost of our military bands, less than the cost of a cup of coffee in Washington, D.C. for each American. TheagencybecameathorninthesideoftheBushadministration. For decades, the NEA had gone about its work outside of much public notice (while creating a lot of public good). But Jesse Helms, and a handful of other politicians and public preachers (Jerry Falwell, Donald Wildmon), desperate to gain notoriety and funds and wishing to resurrect the Christian right wing from the political grave that Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker had dug for it a few years before, seized upon the NEA and a handful of controversial grants and shook them, like tambourines, for all they were worth. Frohnmayer’sbookdescribeshisroleinthevariouscontroversies, hismotivesforvetoingandrescindinganumberofgrants,andforplacing the paragraph that came to be erroneously known as “the loyalty oath” prominently in the acceptance letters which grant recipients 156 weretosign.Hehopedtopromptalawsuitthatwouldeventuallycause the language to be declared unconstitutional. Because he is a lawyer, Frohnmayer’s first choice for a solution is litigation. The so-called restriction was no restriction at all, though it was quickly advertised as one by a segment of the arts community, and the time for legal action was not at the grant-receiving stage, but at the pointtheartwasproduced.Myview,therefore,was,letthemprosecute the artists. See how far that would get them. As Frohnmayer writes, “Obscenity had come to mean whatever the complainant didn’t like, because no court in any jurisdiction in theUnitedStateshadeverfoundanyEndowment-supportedendeavor obscene.” But Frohnmayer hoped that someone would sue immediately: “Congress had put the law there and Congress could take it away, but only a court, by declaring it constitutionally infirm could get it out of our hair permanently.” Some suits were eventually started, but this was another case of Frohnmayer showing bad judgment: Congress did remove the socalled content restriction the next year, but added a “decency” clause thatwasthenstruckdownbyaCaliforniacourt(andisbeingappealed by the Reno Department of Justice). Frohnmayer wanted a legal solution , not a political one, since the political world he was dealing with was so much of an anti-intellectual swamp. There has now been a political solution, the election of Bill Clinton , but it is not clear, at all, what will become of the NEA (not much, I suppose; the damage it sustained is more or less permanent; it will limp on – an invalid). But what is clear is that the NEA is of no more importance to Clinton than it was to Bush; perhaps even less...


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