Near the end of the 1990s, ultra-conservatives became so captivated with the novelty of impeaching the president that they stopped demonizing American artists and elevated Bill Clinton as their primary symbol of licentiousness and immorality. By that time, the present administration's head honcho, with his personal vulnerabilities, was delivering more fodder for prurient newspaper stories and op-eds than the National Endowment for the Arts ever had. And the avant-garde bugaboos of the right, such as Annie Sprinkle and Holly Hughes, long derided in Congress as the kind of decadent performers that prosper under public subsidy of the arts, were pretty much forgotten.
In retrospect, the culture wars of the early and mid-'90s, in which the NEA was cast as the Beast of the Apocalypse, have the surrealistic quality of a nightmare. Yet the political cease-fire that has allowed the federal culture agency to regroup isn't due merely to happenstance. A lot of credit goes to Jane Alexander, the distinguished actress who transformed herself into a savvy politico when called upon to chair the NEA from 1993 to 1997. Under the hard-working and diplomatic Alexander, the agency was restored to a level of prestige--though not of appropriations--unknown since the 1960s and early '70s.
Alexander, the sixth chair in the NEA's history, gained acclaim as a performer in the late 1960s in Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama developed on NEA funds. She took the Endowment's helm at a time when the odds--including the odds of survival--were against the agency.
For at least five years, the NEA had been under vigorous attack, in part, because of grants for controversial projects such as museum exhibitions that featured works by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Reacting to those high profile grants, conservative legislators (and others who wanted to curry favor with the religious right) called for content restrictions on artists receiving federal funds. At the same time, critics on the left felt the NEA, acceding to pressure from philistines on the far right, had failed to uphold the principles of the First Amendment. Controversial grants, however, were red herrings. The unarticulated issue, always boiling at a subterranean level, was whether public money should subsidize the arts at all or whether subsidies, if any, should come strictly from the private sector.
Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics (Public Affairs, $27.50, 352 pp.) is Alexander's frank account of her time as President Clinton's appointee and the ugly lessons she carried away from those years at the NEA. With little or no support from the administration that brought her to Washington, Alexander faced an inordinate challenge defending the Endowment against the 104th and 105th Congresses and, especially, Newt Gingrich, who was a formidable foe of government support for the arts. In Command Performance, she recalls yearning "for a president who would tell me that we had the moral high ground and that in a democracy we embraced the full spectrum of tastes, one that included all kinds of art." Unable to obtain an audience with Clinton for the first year-and-a-half of her term, let alone rely on his support, Alexander could only fantasize about a nobler world in which she and her president might ride into battle together "in the name of freedom of expression and the First Amendment."
Alexander had every reason to expect she could work shoulder-to-shoulder with the president to save the beleaguered NEA. As she points out, "the Democratic platform that the president endorsed prior to his election in 1992 was fully committed to the NEA and the NEH." If Alexander was dewy-eyed on arrival in Washington, she soon became more pragmatic.