It seems Rocco Landesman, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, didn't get the memo, literally.
On Sept. 22, stung by controversy over the administration's effort to turn the arts community into proselytizers of its very special brand of hope and change, the White House issued a stern warning to all government agencies: Keep politics out of the arts.
The White House denied that was ever the intent. Many in the media, as is their wont, took the Obama administration at their word.
But not the Web site Big Government (which broke the story) and the Washington Times. They demonstrated that from the earliest days of the presidential transition, Barack Obama's political operation sought to entrench the arts community in its "outreach" operations. Bill Ivey, Obama's transition adviser on the arts, admitted in June: "I wanted to see some real connection between administration objectives and the capacity of all the cultural actors in government. I made some progress. I got some agreement."
That "progress" mostly came in the form of enlisting arts groups — groups that received stimulus money — in Obama's national service agenda.
Three days after Landesman was confirmed as the head of the NEA, his communications director, Yosi Sergant, told NEA grantees in a conference call: "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment — you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service."
Two days later, a host of arts organizations endorsed Obama's health care plan: "We call on Congress to pass: A health care reform bill that will create a public health option.... There is little time to waste...." Of the 21 groups signing the statement, 16 had recently received grants from the NEA or were affiliated with organizations that had.
Sergant was thrown under the bus, and the Sept. 22 memo put an end to the story for the supportive media.
But the story continues. Landesman recently gave the keynote address to the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. In fairness, Landesman did not reaffirm the White House and NEA's obvious initial intent to turn the allegedly independent government agency into an adjunct of Obama's "Organizing for America" operation. He was more subtle than that.
Instead, Landesman embraced a timeless tactic of power politics. He debased himself with incandescently vulgar obsequiousness to his supreme leader. "There is a new president and a new NEA," he proclaimed. "This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists."
After more fawning praise for the "Optimist in Chief," he added that proof of Obama's desire to take the NEA in exciting new directions was the president's "out-of-left-field choice to head the NEA, a signal I certainly took to mean he wasn't interested in business-as-usual for the arts." One must trust that Landesman's interpretation of his own appointment is accurate.
Let us pause to reflect on Landesman's odd — by which I mean absurd — historical analysis. Obama has written two books, one good, the other a plodding concatenation of political cliches and bromides. Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, published by Mark Twain, were a literary triumph. Woodrow Wilson wrote many books of great import but of less literary worth. JFK won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his books — the one he didn't write, alas. But Richard Nixon wrote plenty, as did Herbert Hoover, including two definitive texts, one on mining, the other on fishing.
Oh, and Lincoln never wrote any books.
In short, Landesman doesn't know what he's talking about. But he does know what he's doing.
What matters to him is not the power of Obama's writing but the power of the writer. Why else compare a democratically elected president to one of history's most iconic dictators? That is unless we are to believe he is a huge fan of Caesar's "De Bello Gallico."
There have been far greater writers with power than Obama since Caesar. Among them: Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin and Marcus Aurelius.
By displaying with brazenly self-abasing ignorance that he is wholly Obama's man, Landesman is making it clear that the NEA is completely committed to Obamaism. There's no need for any more of Sergant's tacky, Chicago-style pay-to-play. Self-humiliation sends a far more powerful signal.
No doubt the provincial official has pleased his Caesar.