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All About Jane

Friday, December 1, 2000

Jane Alexander.
Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics. Public Affairs.
336 pages. $25.00

There are basically two kinds of people who get appointed to run federal agencies. In one category are those who come in with a certain degree of humility about the job they have been asked to do, are open to the possibility of learning what the organization is for and how it works, and, as a result, stand some chance of being successful, by whatever measure, in their predictably brief tenure. In another category are those who, unable or unwilling to understand or accept the essentially political nature of the work they have agreed to undertake, find it frustrating, demoralizing, and ultimately incomprehensible. They leave office disillusioned and embittered, and attribute their lack of success to the bad motives of their adversaries or to the unworkability of "the system" — to anything, in short, but some kind of failure on their part.

Into this second category falls Jane Alexander, star of stage, screen, and television and one-time head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Her brisk but tedious memoir tells the story of her four-year stint at the NEA, from 1993 to 1997, and how it happened that the agency put in her charge was forced into a wholesale restructuring of its operations — in particular, the method by which it gave out grants — and came to have nearly half of its budget cut by Congress. In Washington terms, this outcome was about as drastic as they come.

Trouble had been brewing for the NEA for some time before Alexander’s arrival. In 1989, a scandal erupted over the revelation that NEA money had gone to museums that had exhibited homosexual sadomasochistic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and a piece by Andres Serrano called "Piss Christ," in which a crucifix was submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. Several years later, John Fronmayer, the head of the endowment during the Bush administration, was in effect run out of town when he was unable to contain the controversy that followed his denial of grants to four artists under the "decency clause" that Congress had inserted into the nea’s reauthorizing statute. The "NEA Four," as they came to be called, included Karen Finley, a performance artist who had become famous for smearing chocolate on her nude body on stage. They filed a lawsuit that became a rallying point for those who felt Congress should impose no restrictions on the NEA’s grant-giving process. In the wake of all these events, it was hardly surprising that, when control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed to the Republicans in 1995, the long knives were out for the nea.

That Jane Alexander was singularly unprepared to deal with this crisis is a point she makes over and over again. But her lack of political acumen was evident even before she moved from New York to Washington. Having lobbied hard for the job and learned that it had come down to a choice between her and one other candidate, she was waiting for the final decision from the White House. When the word came, she received a call telling her to stand by, she would shortly be receiving a call from the president. After an hour or so, she grew impatient and decided to run out for a sandwich. When she came back, she found a message on her answering machine: The president had called and would try again to reach her. So she waited some more, grew impatient again, and went out to pick up her dry cleaning. When she came back, there was another message on her machine from Air Force One. Not surprisingly, she tells us, the president did not call a third time. Later, after she had been confirmed and started work, she wondered why her requests for a meeting with the president to discuss NEA matters went unanswered for two years. Yet all her puzzlement and exasperation never did lead her to reflect on her own outrageous behavior. Likewise, she seemed completely unaware that her decision to go ahead with a long-planned rafting vacation at the very time a critical congressional subcommittee mark-up was taking place signaled a failure to recognize the exigencies of her position as head of an embattled agency.

As these incidents suggest, Alexander went to Washington with a certain view of herself — as a kind of grande dame who was simply above doing the sorts of things, and finding a way of making the sorts of compromises, that are essential to political success. Little wonder, then, that she quickly came to see herself primarily as a victim of forces beyond her control — namely, the "Religious Right" and the "extremist" Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Yet what was it that, in her view, made these Republicans so difficult to deal with? Time and again, what they tried to make clear to her was that they were unhappy about the fact that NEA money, in some way, shape, or form, had found its way into the hands of artists whose work was either of extremely dubious value or highly offensive to their moral sensibilities and those of their constituents. Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ"; Karen Finley’s performance art; Ron Athey’s cutting of an HIV-infected man’s back on stage, dabbing the wounds with paper towels, and sending these artifacts out over the heads of the audience on a pulley line; an obscure conceptual artist using his $1,700 of NEA money to hand out $10 bills to Mexicans illegally crossing into the United States — these sorts of things were what got the Republicans so upset. And they are not self-evidently deserving of funding by anyone, including the federal government. But when the congressmen asked Alexander if the NEA was going to continue, somehow, to be associated with such activities, all she could do was equivocate, cite the First Amendment, and declare her opposition to censorship. Even when the White House asked her to dissociate the NEA from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — a longtime, and perhaps generally deserving, grantee, but also the sponsor of the Athey performance — she refused, insisting that no one involved had done anything wrong.

Her confusion about these matters is evident. At one point, she freely admits that the most the NEA can hope to do is go on funding mediocre art, which leaves you wondering why she was so self-righteously obstinate in dealing with Congress and the White House. In any case, like most of the current custodians of our cultural life, Alexander had adopted a rigidly self-serving "art-is-what-artists-say-it-is-and-nobody-has-the-right-to-tell-them-otherwise" attitude. She maintained this position even as it became clear that doing so was an invitation to Congress to act. She stuck to it even when, as her account makes clear, many members preferred not to act if they could possibly avoid it. And in the end, they did act, with drastic results for the NEA’s budget (although the effect of this on the arts in America seems to have been negligible).

The fact that this sort of budget cutting is so unusual is a matter of much anguish to conservatives, who know that even at the height of the so-called Republican Revolution that began with the takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections and ended with the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich not very long afterward, very few federal programs were permanently or significantly cut, and even fewer abolished altogether. One that was eliminated was the U.S. Information Agency, an organization whose activities and impact, being intellectual or cultural in nature, were, like those of the NEA, not always easy to explain or justify even when the need was most apparent. In the case of usia, that need may have been less clear after the end of the Cold War. But that was not the reason the agency got the ax, although it was used by some as a handy excuse. As one congressional aide told me in 1995, USIA wasn’t even on the budget-cutters’ radar screen until its director took it upon himself to brief the new Congress on his own peculiarly insular view of the organization’s mission, which was essentially the opposite of its longstanding, and long recognized, purpose. Although the hapless appointee did not know it at the time, his briefing, and what it signified, sealed his agency’s fate.

The point here, and one that Alexander seems incapable of grasping, is that who’s running an agency in Washington, and how he or she approaches that task, can actually make a difference, for good or ill. While the NEA, unlike USIA, was spared extinction, it is by no means clear that its survival was because of, rather than despite, Jane Alexander. In effect, the Republicans said to her, "show us a way out other than having to dictate terms," and she gave them the back of her hand, all in the name of "principle."

Did she have any choice? There are times when she suggests that, if she had better understood what she calls the "political game," she might have done things differently. Yet one doesn’t quite find her convincing when she tells us that it was her ignorance and inexperience that led her to be so stubborn. For presumably she was being advised, if she couldn’t quite fathom it herself, that the NEA was in grave danger. In such circumstances, one might have expected her to be desperately looking for a way to stave off disaster. No, the real problem was not her ignorance and inexperience, great as those may have been, or even the fact that the NEA was in hot water before she arrived. The real problem was that she suffered from a complete lack of imagination when it came to dealing with politicians, especially those on the other side.

As someone who reminds us repeatedly that she had played, and loved playing, characters in the theater, from Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill and Wendy Wasserstein, not to mention innumerable roles in the movies and on television, Jane Alexander seemed utterly at a loss when it came to understanding the psychology of a Republican congressman — not exactly the most impenetrable of men walking the earth — or even that of her own Democratic president. If she had made such an imaginative effort, she might have found a way to respond to their concerns that would have been true to her agency’s mission, preserved much more of its budget, and gone some way toward appeasing its critics. At the very least, she would have been able to propose the kind of sensible reforms she ended up being forced to carry out anyway, reforms that ended the practice of giving grants to individual artists and made organizational recipients far more accountable than they had been in the past. That way, she could have gotten credit for taking the initiative, which would surely have reduced, if not broken, the budget-cutting fever.

As it was, she seems only to have been able to empathize with those, like Sen. Ted Kennedy, who already agreed with her preconceived notions. That, as it turned out, didn’t really do her much good, since the Democrats and the liberal Republicans were not calling the shots (and she was clearly taken aback when the late John Kennedy Jr. said to her at a Georgetown dinner party, after listening to her blindly heap praise on his uncle for his support of the arts, "Now all we have to do is get him some taste"). And because of this blinkered approach she was ultimately unable to reconsider the larger issue that was central to the dilemma she faced — just what are and what are not legitimate purposes and activities for the NEA to be involved in?