NEA, Revisited: Fun with Conference Call Textual Exegesis!

As a follow-up to yesterday’s story about the alleged “politicization” of the National Endowment for the Arts — crisis averted. Jake Tapper of ABC reports that the administration cracked down on the staffers responsible, and plans on instituting programs to ensure future incidents are averted. I’m hesitant to frame that as a defeat, or even a setback. As I argued yesterday, a de-politicization of government programs, like arts patronage, is probably desirable, but unfeasible, and unlikely to be duplicated by future White House inhabitants. Obama’s White House deserves credit, though, for living up to best practices, and avoiding avoidable controversy.

That said, I maintain that the call (transcript) at most suggests the appearance rather than the actuality of impropriety. Shock quotes suggest a belief in NEA encouragement, rather than acts under its authority, and, more importantly, a commitment to the independent pursuit of works of art with a particular message. This isn’t a group of government employees creating pro-government artwork with government money; it’s a group of artists, who happen to be government employees, discovering and pursuing shared interests on their own time, with their own money. If the initial call occurred on government time, well, that’s a problem. But it’s a problem with the mode rather than the substance of the communication, similar to a politician campaigning from his office. It’s improper, yes, but not “explosive,” and not a marker of “propaganda.”

Picture 2Bottom line, we might have to all chill out, just a little bit. For at least the past few months, the right has struggled to see tyranny around every corner. We’ve learned to fear free, optional end-of-life legal/medical counseling (“death panels!”), emergency provisions for government computer networks (“the Fairness Doctrine is back!”), and back-to-school inspirational speeches (“socialist indoctrination!”). In all this time, the closest the right has come to finding true government coercion is a call from a government office asking artists to help build a pro-service art agenda on their own time, and with their own money. The horror.

With apologies to XKCD.


  1. They are recipients of taxpayer dollars, in the form of government grants, from the very organization that made the request of them. So the following characterization is, at best, misleading “a call from a government office asking artists to help build a pro-service art agenda on their own time, and with their own money.”

    I can’t state it any better than Patrick Courrielche,


    Three days after the conference call a coalition of arts groups, led by Americans for the Arts, a participant on the conference call per the meeting contact list and recipient of NEA grants, sent out a press release with the heading ‘Urgent Call to Congress for Healthcare Reform,’ which called for the creation of ‘a health care reform bill that will create a public health insurance option.'”

    I love the mind of a person on the left. They did nothing wrong, but let’s just go ahead make sure they don’t do that, which was totally not wrong, again. Hell, the transcript is damning to any objective individual. Page 8 & 9 make clear the purpose of that phone call.

    1. *NEA* receives taxpayer money. It’s not clear that this was an NEA program, with NEA money. In fact, the plain meaning of “at the NEA’s request,” or whatever, is that they were asked to do this on their own time, from outside the agency.

      1. The NEA spokesman, along with a member of the Obama administration, engaged with these individuals in an official capacity (making special note of their titles and positions). You can attempt to spin it, it’s likely your inclination as a would be lawyer, but the impropriety is clear to even the most obtuse.

        If you can read those transcripts and not see that officials were asking artists, funded by taxpayers, to assist in pushing forward President Obama’s agenda, then you should ask whatever college you graduated from for a refund.

  2. Also, the belief that what one did was not wrong is perfectly reconcilable with a desire to avoid future controversy. That’s just common sense.

  3. From ACG:

    “That said, I maintain that the call (transcript) at most suggests the appearance rather than the actuality of impropriety.”

    Obi-Wan said: “I was telling the truth…from a certain persepctive.”

  4. Stickeenotes,
    How is the NEA’s alleged impropriety any different then Bush Administration senior officials – mostly political appointees – meetin gon government time to receive reelection message breifings from the White House?

    Look, no Administration will be free from the appearence of trying to use its bully pulpit for political purposes. We shouldn’t excpect it to either.

    Oh, and while I’m at it – if someone from the NEA encourages grant recipients to participate in our democracy on issues that may be important – I say good on them! We need more civic engagement in this country, not less.

    1. Why does the defense for all Obama Administration errors seem to be, “Bush did it first?”

      I thought the whole point of putting Democrats in power was to usher in a new era of government? Now it seems that we just got more of the same…

      1. Mike,
        Its not about defending Obama by citing Bush. Its about asking why Bush gets a pass and Obama gets pillaried.

        I agree we get more of the same, but you know thatfrom my other writings.

        1. And defenders of the Bush administration could say they were simply continuing the shady policies of the Clinton years. At some point that excuse doesn’t hold water.

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