Newt on Art: Does He Mean It?

Something - principle... desperation... a spring breeze... - has motivated Newt Gingrich to stiffen his spine on the topic of federal arts funding. The Speaker may revert to what some claim to be an all-too-frequent jellyfish mode, but for the time being, the right feels encouraged.

After talking tough to the thugs who run China, now comes the hard part: Gingrich proposes to stand up to the arts establishment and call for the elimination of the NEA. Though he deserves credit for speaking out, let us remember that it was only two years ago, in the heady days of the Republican revolution, when such talk was GOP House orthodoxy, and the legislation to carry out this task a veritable fait accomplish.

To criticize federal funding for obscene art is simply to articulate common sense, and to oppose federal arts funding is merely to assert basic conservative doctrine, period. But this time Gingrich went the extra mile to put some of the NEA's most prominent advocates, the megabuck celebrities, on the defensive. "If the people who come to lobby us who are famous and rich [would] dedicate one percent of their gross income to an American Endowment for the Arts," Gingrich declared, "they would fund a bigger system than the National Endowment... [Stars] should not come [to Capitol Hill] to ask us to raise taxes on $24,000-a-year workers in order to transfer the money to New York and California."

A case in point is New York's Whitney Museum, to which the NEA gave $400,000 the same day that Gingrich made his remarks. What can one see at the Whitney? For one thing, according to the Kansas City Star, a "wildly perverted Santa's workshop" in which the characters, covered with chocolate sauce, "perform... lewd acts with stuffed animals." Also displayed at the museum are still photos from "Watermelon Woman," an NEA-funded movie about black lesbians.

Gingrich, of course, is arguing not for a reformed NEA that would stop funding only projects like those at the Whitney, but rather for the NEA's abolition. But is he sincere? Two incidents from earlier this year give cause for skepticism. On March 11, several actors, including the liberal blowhard Alec Baldwin, descended on the Capitol to press for arts funding. Baldwin and his fellow lobbyists-for-a-day were in the office of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and asked him to arrange for them a meeting with Gingrich. Foley called Gingrich, who agreed to the request. Baldwin later opined that he was "impressed with... Gingrich regarding this issue."

Already upset with Newt's public overtures to Jesse Jackson, the Baldwin meeting represented, in the eyes of many conservatives, another nonsensical overture to the enemy. And make no mistake, Baldwin hates conservatives. He's a fiercely partisan bore at best, an intemperate extremist at worst. In the February edition of Us magazine, for example, he raged, "The people who run the Republican Party... are really rotten, nasty, horrible human beings [who] want to hurt" Bill Clinton. After the interviewer asked who these "evil men" might be, the first words out of Baldwin's mouth were, "Newt Gingrich."

Harsh rhetoric aside, there's the narrower question of Baldwin and Gingrich's sharp disagreement over the NEA. In 1995, Gingrich stated that the Endowment supplied "art patronage for an elite group... and fund[ed] avant-garde people who are explicitly not accepted by most of the taxpayers who are coerced into paying for it."

So why huddle with a man who despises your movement and whose whole purpose for meeting was to salvage that which Newt had pledged to terminate? It can't be that the Speaker was unaware of Baldwin's positions. Us is not an obscure magazine. Its circulation is 1.1 million, and its total readership is estimated at 4.5 million. Quite simply, it was poor political judgment, if not a signal that Gingrich's position on NEA funding was changing.

Gingrich squandered more conservative good will on February 12. The Weekly Standard reported that at a Washington dinner honoring Ward Connerly, the force behind the California Civil Rights Initiative, Gingrich delivered a stirring anti-affirmative action speech and was rewarded with a standing ovation. Later that evening, though, the Speaker said that legislation proposed by Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) outlawing federally sponsored affirmative action was not "a top priority." Canady, according to the Standard, "call[ed] the discrepancy between Gingrich's words and deeds 'bizarre.'"

As it would be if Gingrich backed down from his current position on the NEA. This issue is a test for Newt and his leadership abilities. If he stands firm, he burnishes his credentials to lead on the budget and taxes. If he doesn't, it could be the last straw for many of his loyalists.