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Former Leading Lady of the NEA Tells All

Charles Wright reviews Command Performance, JANE ALEXANDER's political memoir about her days as the NEA's leading lady. logo

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.

Written without a collaborator or ghost, Command Performance offers a keen view of the way business is conducted in Washington. "The real world was the political game we were all playing. It was not the pure world of the theater, where I stepped out onstage every night and said the same lines and received the same response from my fellow actors, huddled in the safe cocoon of the playwright's world. It wasn't possible to be in politics and not compromise to within an inch of your life. Perhaps that was the meaning of politics: compromise, finding the middle ground; watering things down to make them the most palatable for the most people; being manipulative when need be to get reelected; and being diplomatic, which meant not saying what is really on your mind."

Alexander doesn't mince words about those in Congress, whom she found to be "men of little minds" who "dwelt on their fears of obscenity and perversity, diminishing us all with their myopia." She regrets that the congressional leaders "revealed a great deal about themselves through their consistent attacks on art. Believing they were crusaders leading the moralist parade to protect the American public, in fact they thought less of human beings than I did, not more."

Alexander aims to rouse her readers out of political lethargy by exposing the horrors she discovered on the Hill. But, much of the time, the quality of those sentiments outstrips the quality of her rhetoric. Often Alexander's prose reads like a junior high school civics text. For instance, she declaims that "[o]ur political leaders should be the finest in the nation, and we are the ones who are responsible for seeing that they are." With justification, she laments that "the best young men and women in America are not being drawn to a life in politics, for many reasons. Getting elected is extremely invasive and costly. Staying elected involves more of the same, as well as separation from loved ones for weeks on end sometimes. The entire process is exhausting for politicians. But one of the biggest changes I've witnessed in my lifetime is in politicians: they don't lead anymore, they follow. They follow the polls and focus groups, thinking that this is what the public wants them to do."

As a memoirist, Alexander is less accomplished than her predecessor, John Frohnmayer, whose 1993 account, Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior, is arguably the liveliest, most compelling portrait of Washington during the Bush administration. Frohnmayer had the literary advantage of being chair of the NEA at the very height of the culture wars, which must have been hell to live through, but made piquant copy. But in her book, Alexander is every bit as courageous as Frohnmayer in talking turkey about the way a handful of sleazy politicians savaged the American arts community for their own advantage, playing fast and loose with truth and the political process.

Command Performance is an important assessment of what happened to politics and the arts during the 1990s. Frequently, though, it has the turgidness of a government report; and readers may be glad that Alexander, having left politics behind, is once again relying on others to write her lines.

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