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The Brave New NEA: Now It Does Whatever the White House Wants : Arts: Trying to out-Caesar Caesar’s wife, the White House has pushed an controversial choice into the job of acting chair at the endowment.

<i> Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic</i>

The National Endowment for the Arts is teetering at the brink of the abyss, thanks to the recent decision of its new acting chairman to overturn grants for two mainstream exhibi tions duly recommended by a selection panel of professional peers and by the advisory National Council on the Arts.

In unprecedented protest, two sitting panels walked out and other grant recipients returned money. Citing the climate of repression, composer Stephen Sondheim and novelist Wallace Stegner refused the National Medal of Arts.

Few were surprised by the acting chairman’s unilateral action. Angry, yes; surprised, no. For that is why the White House had maneuvered Anne-Imelda Radice into the agency’s top spot. In fact, more such reversals can be expected. In the Bush Administration, Radice is the NEA’s Clarence Thomas.

The analogy is not frivolous. One goal of the Reagan Administration had been to weaken job discrimination protections. In 1982, the President plucked Thomas from the vast Washington bureaucracy to head the pivotal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas, then a 33-year-old assistant secretary of education, could claim no stellar qualifications for so important a civil-rights post. Instead, three significant attributes stood out.

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First, he was a conservative Republican. Second, he was an insider in the Washington maze. And, finally, he was an African-American.

Ronald Reagan had just been battered by a failed confirmation process for Detroit businessman William Bell, his first nominee to head EEOC. With no documented record of civil-rights activity and scant administrative experience, the choice was lambasted as an “embarrassment” by civil-rights groups. Bell was dropped, and Reagan tried again.

Thomas prevailed. Despite sharp criticism from the civil-rights Establishment over his views on affirmative action, charges of gross inexperience, which had toppled Bell, did not apply. What did apply was the same largely unspoken qualification he shared with Bell.

As a conservative Republican who was black, Thomas would provide a degree of invulnerability to any charge of racism that might attend the Administration agenda he would be asked to fulfill. His own “equal employment opportunity” would stand as a symbolic shield for the President.

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A decade later, with affirmative action in disarray and Thomas installed on the Supreme Court, the romping success of the strategy is plain. So, here it comes again at the beleaguered NEA.

John E. Frohnmayer, President Bush’s first appointment to the agency’s chair, was forced out in February after NEA policies for unfettered support of the arts emerged as a presidential election issue. The White House had nudged Frohnmayer toward resigning last fall. But, push came to shove with the strong showing in the New Hampshire primary of far-right challenger--and rabid NEA foe--Patrick J. Buchanan.

Insuring the line of NEA succession, the White House last year installed Radice at the agency. Campaign politics accelerated her advancement. On March 1, she was promoted to senior deputy; on May 1, to acting chairman. A former functionary in the office of the architect of the U.S. Capitol and founding director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened to critical catcalls in 1987, Radice is not qualified for what amounts to the most important arts post in the federal government. Instead, three significant attributes stand out.

First, she is a conservative Republican. Second, she is an insider in the Washington maze. And, finally, she is an open lesbian. As with Thomas at the EEOC, these “qualifications” explain a lot about the goings-on at the embattled agency.

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The far-right attack on the NEA has targeted art that addresses feminist and gay subject matter. Robert Mapplethorpe’s posthumous retrospective, “The Perfect Moment;” the so-called “NEA 4" (performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller); a show about AIDS at New York’s Artists Space; “Tongues Untied,” a film about black gays; a display of the AIDS Quilt; the literary anthology “Queer City,” and more--the focus of the purge is plain.

Bush’s dilemma in the NEA crisis has been how to accommodate the far right, whose ballots he will need next fall, without totally alienating the large, often influential arts constituency, who recognize the NEA’s fundamental importance. Like Solomon with the disputed infant, one answer now shaping up is to cut the arts in two: Save NEA support for big arts institutions--major museums, symphonies and theaters that inevitably tend toward cautious programming--and sever NEA support in the more unpredictable areas of independent artists, university programs and artist-run spaces, where most alleged “trouble” has been.

Bush, however, also needs to establish a “kinder, gentler” distance from extremists, whose malicious attacks derive from an antipathy toward homosexuals and women who challenge traditional roles. That’s where Radice comes in. As a conservative Republican who is also a lesbian, she provides a degree of invulnerability to charges of homophobia and sexism during the NEA purge. Like Thomas before her, she stands as a symbolic shield for the President.

One glaring distinction does separate Reagan’s appointment of Thomas from Bush’s advancement of Radice. For good or ill, Reagan believed in the necessity of turning back the clock on job discrimination. There was never any doubt that Thomas was serving the President’s conservative principles.

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By contrast, Bush has never shown even nominal interest in domestic arts policy. Radice may be unqualified, but as a willing White House hit man she is cynically destroying the NEA’s exemplary record of democratic decision-making, all for the benefit of the President’s reelection campaign. Except for Washington’s Golden Rule of self-preservation, principle has nothing to do with it.


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