DATE October 7, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins discusses her new
book, "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Molly Ivins, is a syndicated political columnist based in Austin,
Texas, who is known for her outspoken views and biting wit. She wrote about
George W. Bush when he was the governor of Texas, and she's continued to write
about him as president. She's a critic of the president, and she explains why
in her new book, "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America." It's
co-authored with Lou Dubose, with whom she also wrote the 1999 best-seller
"Shrub," about Bush's years as governor. Her book "Molly Ivins Can't Say
That, Can She?" was also a best-seller. Ivins is the former co-editor of the
Now you're in an interesting position living in Texas and having followed
George W. Bush's career as governor of that state. You can see some of the
things that he accomplished in Texas that he's patterning programs on as
president of the United States. Can we talk about a couple of those?
Ms. MOLLY IVINS (Syndicated Political Columnist): Sure.
GROSS: One of the biggest domestic stories in the Bush administration is his
tax cuts. And you watched him preside over tax cuts in Texas. What was the
extent of the tax cuts there?
Ms. IVINS: They were very large by our standards. When Bush came into
office in '94, he inherited a very tidy surplus from his predecessor and
promptly gave tax cuts to property owners. And then, having done that once,
he went back and did it again. And, as a consequence, the state was left
with no money in its rainy-day fund; that is to say, nothing in its savings
account. And when we got hit with the economic downturn along with everybody
else, there was the state, stoney broke, with nothing in reserve. And we
wound up having to whack $10 billion out of what nobody has ever considered a
GROSS: What have the repercussions been? Have there been cuts in services?
I mean, what...
Ms. IVINS: Oh, absolutely. And, unfortunately, it was done in such an almost
heartbreaking way. Texas is not generous with social services, you know.
We're lucky to be a step ahead of Mississippi. We wound up cutting from
children, old people and sick people.
GROSS: What kind of programs?
Ms. IVINS: Children's Health Insurance Program, home care for the elderly.
We just hit all the social services. But God bless Texas, at least we're
still maintaining a healthy business climate.
GROSS: When you're looking at the proposals to further cut tax cuts in
America, what do you think about regarding Texas?
Ms. IVINS: Well, again, there's an old country-western song called "Lubbock
On Everything." And sometimes I think that what we are now watching is
"Texas On Everything." It's as though W had gone to Washington to spread the
great gospel of the Lone Star State all over the entire country. And it's
always been my observation--I think that Texas is the national laboratory for
bad government. Every nutty idea that's ever been thought of has been tried
here and generally proved to be absolutely worthless. And to watch Bush take
these same ideas to Washington and try to replicate them nationwide makes me
wonder why the other 49 states haven't just seceded.
GROSS: You wrote that one casualty of the budget crash is the state's public
schools, and you're talking about Texas here.
Ms. IVINS: Right.
GROSS: And education has been very important to President Bush as president
of the United States. Is he trying to replicate anything nationally that he
tried in Texas as governor?
Ms. IVINS: Oh, absolutely. One of his great claims to fame was the Texas
education miracle. And he particularly emphasized standards testing. What's
interesting is, of course, that, indeed, Texas public schools have improved
since the 1970s. And many governors have struggled with this over this years,
and particularly the problem of equitable school financing because the state
was hauled into court and this long-running lawsuit was finally ruled against
the state and said that we were just doing a terrible job of balancing the way
we pay for schools. So that was a huge struggle in the Legislature
culminating in something called the Robin Hood plan, in theory taking from the
rich and giving to the poor. And I must say, there was some improvement.
And when I wrote about Bush in 2000, during the presidential campaign, I
said, look, you know, this guy's record is mostly either not impressive or
depressing, but there is one bright spot: he really is interested in
education, he really understands the issue, and he put a lot of time and
energy into it. I didn't know at the time, and in the new book we report
that what had appeared to be significant advances in education in Texas,
improving scores and just a general upward trend, turned out to have been,
heartbreakingly enough, slightly fraudulent.
What happened was we were getting higher scores by increasing the dropout
rate, which, depending on which study you believe, may be somewhere short of
40 percent, which is really pretty ugly. And what you're seeing, for
example, students have to be tested in fourth and ninth grade--or 10th grade.
And so, at the high-school level, you have kids who remain in school for
three years as technical ninth-graders. They're never allowed to advance
because they would lower the school's cumulative score.
And this kind of sort of cheating--for lack of a better word, let's just call
it cheating--was, of course, provoked by these requirements laid on public
schools by the state without sufficient funds to back them up. In other
words, they were told, `perform, do better,' but not given any wherewithal to
And there you are again. It's exactly the same thing at the national level.
I mean, Bush's first big play was the education bill called No Child Left
Behind. And Senator Edward Kennedy worked with the administration on that.
And they came up with, you know, a plan to--again, standards, testing, let's
see the results, let's find out how these kids are doing. And then Bush
refused to fully fund what he had committed to with Kennedy in the course of
negotiating for that bill. There's no use demanding higher standards of
schools unless you give them something to work with.
GROSS: Now you're implying that schools are just as happy, that the kids who
score low drop out because then the school looks better on the standardized
Ms. IVINS: Yes, I am. I am more than implying that, I'm stating that.
GROSS: And why would the schools want the kids out to make the test scores
Ms. IVINS: Well, if you're the principal of a school that doesn't meet the
standards of the state--you know, a sufficient number of kids pass the test
so that you get approval--then, among other things, you're fired, you're gone.
GROSS: So how does this system that you're describing in Texas compare to
what's being put in place in the US?
Ms. IVINS: Well, the No Child Left Behind Act, you will find if you talk to
educators around the country, is being found to have serious drawbacks and a
whole lot of hell is being raised about it on a lot of different levels. But
I think, again, it comes back to the fact that you demand more of the schools
without giving them any more resources.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is syndicated columnist Molly
Ivins. She is a native of Texas, continues to live there. Her new book is
called "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America."
You write about the president's religion. And you say while you acknowledge
that, you know, religion is usually off limits for the press to write about,
you think it's important to bring it up in the case of President Bush. Why?
Ms. IVINS: Well, I think that George W. Bush, unlike his father--his dad,
George Bush, was clearly a sort of upper-class eastern WASP. W is really,
consciously, culturally identified as a Texan. And you see in his character
sort of three common strands of Texas culture. One is religiosity,
anti-intellectualism and machismo. And all three of them are very appealing
to broad groups of voters. And I think in Bush's case, at least with the
first two, absolutely genuine. I think the religiosity is genuine and I think
it needs to be looked at--as I say, mostly, religion, pretty much, no. You
know, you leave it off base. But to the extent that his religious beliefs
influence policy, which they do at several intersections, then I think it's
legitimate to take a look at it.
GROSS: Now in "Bushwhacked," you describe the Bush administration as driven
by ideology. What do you see as the ideology that drives it?
Ms. IVINS: The ideology of this administration--there's an extent to which I
did not think Bush, as governor, while very conservative but, you understand,
conservative in a sort of Texas--How to explain this--there's a certain kind
of provincialism. I believe that provincialism is a universal characteristic,
but I must admit, Texas is even more universal in that regard than most.
When--you know, there's the kind of Midland Petroleum Club mentality that Bush
has had all along. I mean, literally, the first time he ever ran for public
office, he ran for Congress in 1978 on the grounds that Jimmy Carter was
leading us toward European-style socialism. I mean, this is Jimmy Carter; the
very Baptist Jimmy Carter.
But Bush himself, as a political operator, didn't seem to me, as governor,
terribly ideologically motivated. He was on some issues--death penalty, some
others you couldn't move him on--but basically he was, you know, flexible
enough to play the game with the powers that then were in the Legislature.
And I think Bush has always chosen, you know, these older male mentors. And
his pick on his way to Washington was Dick Cheney who is really quite
ideological. If you go back, political reporters are great believers in look
at the record, look at the record. Have you checked Cheney's political record
as a voting member of Congress? You'll find it's really quite extraordinary.
He was often one of only one, two or a handful of votes opposed to what would
normally be considered, you know, the legislative equivalent of voting in
favor of a resolution commending motherhood.
And I think that part of what has happened is that Washington is such a
polarized place, and there genuinely is a--the people who call themselves
movement conservatives who really genuinely subscribe the ideology that
government is bad; the marketplace will solve all problems; we're much better
off, you know, with unfettered capitalism, no government; just let the
marketplace solve everything. And I think that's almost like a religious
belief rather than a political belief. It seems to be an article of faith
with many of these people, undeterred by reality, experience, the record or
And so it seems to me that Bush has actually become more ideological since
he's gone to Washington, particularly to the extent that he--and this is a
really elementary political mistake--can't believe Karl Rove who's a very
smart guy is really letting this happen. It seems to me the mistake is that
they're only listening to one another, that there is a sort of loop of
insiders. Did I mention Rumsfeld and Cheney and all that circle of people?
They're just talking to each other and they're not hearing from anyone outside
the circle which is always a fatal mistake.
GROSS: My guest is syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, co-author of the new
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is syndicated columnist Molly Ivins.
In your book, "Bushwhacked," you're critical of the Washington press corps.
Ms. IVINS: Oh, deary.
GROSS: What's your problem with the Washington press corps?
Ms. IVINS: Oh, man, let me count the ways. One thing is I do find it
conformist and pompous and self-important to a level that I find nearly
unbearable. One of the things that annoys me about Washington--I should point
this out--is not just that it's a city where everybody says exactly what
everybody else says. I mean, truly, they are like blackbirds, but when I go
to Washington, instead of coming in and saying, `Well, you-all, I am fresh in
from the prairies of Texas and I am here to tell you that you're full of
whatever.' I'm not there for more than 10 minutes before I find myself saying
exactly what everybody else says. That really drives me crazy and is the
reason I avoid the town.
But I do think that the press has let itself be led around by the nose for
quite a long time. I think during the Clinton era, we were goaded by
political enemies of Clinton into devoting far too much time and attention to
utterly unimportant and inane episodes like Filegate and Travelgate and
Whitewater which, Lord knows, has been investigated until the end of time and
still no evidence of wrongdoing, and that constant sort of, you know, big
scandal stuff. And then, oddly enough, when Bush came in and I certainly had
had enough scandalmongering during the Clinton administration and had
absolutely no desire to see the same thing done to George W. when he took
And I think that Bush got a fair honeymoon from the press corps, and then, of
course, both because of September 11th and--you know, we always rally behind
the president in a national crisis and we always rally behind the president at
war--war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq. So there was just, you know, a long
period of rallying there. And I think it is only now that many people are
standing back and looking at the result of Bush's policies, and
particularly--and what our book is about--the effect of those policies on
And what's astonishing about what we found when we went out and reported this,
well, it was really astonishing to me because I'm a political reporter. You
would think that--I would think it was the most important thing in the whole
world, that government. If you had told us, I think, when we started this
book that a change in government policy--and we're talking about low-level
stuff--never made the headlines; it never made the television news. This is
all just boring regular--you know, little change in regulation, a little
executive war, a little funding cut, nothing very dramatic.
So, basically, we're talking about the regulatory equivalent of changing
Subsection B in Article II of the Interstate Dillydally Compact. And if you
had told us when we started that people would actually die because of some of
these decisions--I mean, dramatically said, `It's a matter of life and
death'--we would have said, `Oh, please, stop being so overdramatic. Get a
grip.' And, dang, if we didn't find exactly that, people dying as a direct
result of minor regulatory changes.
GROSS: What's an example of one?
Ms. IVINS: We have two in the book. One was the Clinton administration had
planned to introduce something called microbial testing as a way of doing meat
and poultry inspection, and this was to get away from the old sort of, you
know, improve on the old scratch-and-sniff method. In other words, federal
meat inspectors are in most meat packing and poultry processing plants and
their job is to go around, and if they see anything that looks and smells
really bad, they're supposed to stop the line.
And this system was clearly not entirely perfect. As you know, we have
outbreaks of disease from time to time. And so they were going to put in this
microbial testing thing, a new, more kind of high-tech way of making sure that
meat and poultry are safe. Well, the reality is that most meat and poultry
processors are based in the Red States. They're called Red States and they're
very large donors to the Republican Party. And so when Bush came in, they
simply put the kibosh on the proposed Clinton plan and went back to the old
system. And so we traced an outbreak of Listeriosis to one of the people who
died as a result of it.
Philadelphia, your hometown, very cold winter last year, as you know. And one
of the things that Bush had specifically promised to protect was a government
program called LIHEAP. That stands for Low Income Heating Assistance Program.
And during a presidential debate with Gore in Boston, Bush specifically said,
`And one of the things we'll do is fully fund LIHEAP which is a program that
helps people, particularly here in the Northeast, with their high heating
bills.' Well, of course, he then proceeded to slice, I think, you know, $300
million out of this very same program. And they try hard in city utility
world--they don't like to cut off poor people in--you know, who are way, way
behind on their bills in the middle of winter. They try and work out deals
with them so you can pay during the summer months and all kinds of things, but
the fact is that that cut, as minor as it sounds in terms of the total federal
budget, the $300 million cut in that one program really did cause a fair
number of people to lose heat and three people died of hypothermia in their
homes there last winter. That would be, to put it bluntly, they froze to
GROSS: Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins. She co-authored the new book
"Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America." She'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with poet Dana Gioia, the chair of the National
Endowment for the Arts, and we continue our conversation with Molly Ivins.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with syndicated columnist Molly Ivins. She lives in Texas and covered
George W. Bush when he was governor. She co-authored a book about those
years called "Shrub." Now she's co-authored a book about the Bush presidency
I do want to ask you about something that everybody in Washington is writing
and talking about, and that is whether columnist and CNN commentator...
Ms. IVINS: Host.
GROSS: ...Bob Novak should be revealing the source or sources that leaked to
him that the wife of Joe Wilson was a CIA operative.
Ms. IVINS: Well, as a journalist, I would say one has an obligation to
protect one's sources, and you would have to push me pretty far before I would
change that. Now I have in my career run across a situation where I would
have revealed the name of an off-the-record source if I had been pushed
because it was a matter that involved justice of an innocent man, and I felt
that my commitment to be off the record in the face of that kind of thing was
not terribly important.
Novak, of course, is going to have to make his own call on that, but if,
indeed, six reporters were called by whoever in the administration with this
information, I'm pretty confident that we can trust our professional
colleagues to leak like sieves and that the information will be out in no time
GROSS: So you think the information will come out without Bob Novak having to
tell who his source was.
Ms. IVINS: Report his leak. Worse than anybody.
Ms. IVINS: Oh, always. Haven't you noticed? Terry.
GROSS: You've said that there are two kinds of humor. One kind makes us
chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity, like what Garrison Keillor
does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule, and you
said, `That's what I do.'
Ms. IVINS: Yeah.
GROSS: What works about that form of humor for you?
Ms. IVINS: OK. Well, I think that satire is--and it's not my opinion, but
you can look at the whole range of history going back to ancient Athens,
ancient Rome. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite a cruel weapon, too. I
mean, it can really injure and harm, but mostly, I think, it does make people
laugh. It's always been a weapon of the powerless against the powerful, and
so if you aim it, as I do, at politicians--I mean, I do try to remember from
time to time that many of them have wives and mothers who love them, but
mostly I figure, `Oh, hell, nobody ever held a gun to their heads and forced
them to run for public office. It's not my problem.'
I try to reserve contempt and ridicule not only for the deserving but the
deserving who have put themselves in the public eye. In other words, we try
not to hit civilians. What has worried me about some of what passes for humor
in recent years is that I find that it is often satire aimed at the powerless.
One hears it on Rush Limbaugh and even more on the programs of Limbaugh's
imitators, these little Limbaughlings who seem to exist in almost every radio
market. See, when you aim satire at helpless people, it's not only cruel;
it's profoundly vulgar.
GROSS: Do you think you were ever good at non-partisan straight reporting
before you became a columnist?
Ms. IVINS: Oh, sure. I spent years as a reporter on the street, and I'm
even--not that I would claim much for that. A reporter's not necessarily a
great and magnificent profession, barely even a trade some would say, but I do
think that there is something to be said for having spent several years of
one's life doing things like going out and interviewing all five eyewitnesses
to an automobile accident and then trying to write an accurate, coherent
account of what happened that will give you a considerable respect for the
complexity of truth. And the difficulty--you can get facts straight and let
the truth go hang itself, to even more unforgivably, get facts wrong, and you
learn as a reporter how to check, how to make sure, how to get it right.
And what really bothers me is how many people are now political commentators
who were never reporters. They have come straight off the front lines of
partisan political warfare. They were campaign honchos or speech writers or
aides to somebody or other, and none of them seem to have spent any time as
reporters. And again, I'm not claiming much for our trade, but I do think
that some respect for the difficulty of truth, for just sort of not carelessly
firing partisan opinion around as though all facts could be bent to a point of
GROSS: And do you think that's what's happening now in a lot of TV and radio,
that it's more about...
Ms. IVINS: Oh, all the time.
GROSS: ...the spin than about trying to find the truth?
Ms. IVINS: All the time. And those dreadful sort of "Gong Shows" where they
go on and it seems to be a sort of--you know, like with the World Wrestling
Federation or something in political drag, go on and snipe at one another to
absolutely no one's enlightenment or understanding or better comprehension of
the situation. It's just annoying.
GROSS: Your parents were Republicans. What were the life-changing episodes
in your life that made you become a Democrat?
Ms. IVINS: Oh, I think I'm a pretty classic case. You really can't talk to
a Southern liberal of a certain age without the answer being race. `How did
you become a liberal in the South or wherever you came from?' `Race. Race.
Race.' I mean, that's just where--I grew up in east Texas before the civil
rights movement and had always thought that the way blacks were treated was
wrong. I mean, it was perfectly clear to me that it was rotten and unfair and
unnecessary and ugly, and not that I was--you know, when I was seven that I
thought in those terms, but I did notice. My mother tried to teach me good
manners, that we were breaking some of those rules when it came to black
And so when the civil rights movement came along, I was part of it in a very
minor way, nothing heroic. I mean, you know, east Texas. We had a tacky
civil rights movement, but that experience showed me how much things can
change in this country, how fast things can change in this country, what
happens when people stand up and fight and scream and yell, how much
difference they can make, and it showed me what an important role government
can play in trying to--trying to--get us a little further down the road toward
liberty and justice for all.
GROSS: Molly Ivins, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. IVINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins is co-author of the new book
"Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America."
Coming up, poet Dana Gioia, the first poet to head The National Endowment for
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dana Gioia of The National Endowment for the Arts
discusses what he hopes to accomplish with the organization
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Dana Gioia, is the first poet to head The National Endowment for the
Arts. He was chosen by President George W. Bush and assumed office early
this year. Gioia's book of poems, "Interrogations at Noon," published two
years ago, included excerpts of the libretto he wrote for the opera
"Nosferatu." He's also the author of the controversial 1991 essay "Can Poetry
Matter?" in which he argued that the cultural importance of poetry was
declining in part because poets were writing for other poets and academics.
Before Gioia made a living through his writing, he worked as a vice president
of General Foods where he oversaw the marketing of Kool-Aid and Jell-O
including the Jell-O Jigglers campaign. As part of his work at the NEA, he's
initiated a nationwide tour of Shakespeare's works performed by six theater
companies. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that FRESH
AIR receives partial funding from the NEA. I asked Dana Gioia to sum up the
arguments he made in his 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and to reflect on
where poetry fits in American culture today.
Mr. DANA GIOIA (Poet; Chair, The National Endowment for the Arts): My essay
"Can Poetry Matter?" started with a cultural paradox which was that never in
the history of humanity had a nation, you know, spent, as it were, so much
money to have people profess poetry, to create this official culture of
poetry, and yet never in the history of humanity had there seemed to be a
nation in which poetry mattered less among the educated people. And so it
seemed to me that there was some sort of cultural disconnect between what I
call the subculture of poetry and the general culture, and I talked about ways
in which the power of poetry, the power of this primal human art could be
reconnected to general American society.
The poetry world has changed rather dramatically. You now have across the
United States civic-based poetry festivals. You have readings commonly in
bookstores. You have poetry on the radio. These things have all been very
effective ways of building the audience for poetry and taking the conversation
that is culture and involving not merely the specialists in it but the
GROSS: Poets have to figure out how to make a living because they're probably
not going to make it from the poems themselves. Only a few lucky poets are
able to actually do that. So many poets teach, and I think that's one of the
reasons why many poets teach. Your solution to that question was to work in
the corporate world for about 15 years. You were a vice president at General
Foods. You ended up being a product manager for Country Time lemonade and you
worked for Kool-Aid. Did you think of yourself as a marketing expert who
wrote poetry or as a poet who needed a day job, or were you able to think of
yourself as both at the same time?
Mr. GIOIA: Well, I always tried to put in an honest day's work and, all too
frequently, an honest evening's work, too, but I am probably the only human
being who's ever gone to Stanford Business School to be a poet. I was at
graduate school at Harvard, and I realized that I wanted to be a poet and that
the university would not necessarily be the best place to do that, that I was
being trained in some ways to write about literature and talk about literature
in a way that not everyone could understand and that, in fact, the very people
that I came from--You know, I'm a working-class kid from LA--were not really
able to understand the way that I spoke about literature at the university.
My parents are wonderful people, but they neglected to give me the private
income I so richly deserved, and so I had to make a living somehow, and I
decided that, you know, in the tradition of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot and
other American poets that I would get a job in business. And so I went into
the business world specifically to be a writer, and I made myself a promise
that I would work on my writing every day. And, indeed, I did that for the
next 17 years.
GROSS: How'd you find the time to do it?
Mr. GIOIA: With great difficulty, but I would come back, and every night, no
matter how tired I was, you know, I would try to read or write for two hours.
And it was hard to do, but I found a phenomenon I'd noticed when I used to run
track happened also at your desk which was called the second wind. No matter
how tired I was, I'd say, `Well, let me just recopy by hand the paragraph or
the stanza that I'd written the night before,' and as I began to do that, new
ideas would come up. And by the end of that little copying exercise, I would
find myself re-engaged back into the work.
GROSS: Gee, what a kind of pleasant and easy transition into starting to
write for the day or the night.
Mr. GIOIA: Well, I think you should always leave yourself a doorway back into
your art. I found that it was important even when I became a full-time writer
because until I became the chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts,
the previous 11 years I supported myself and my family as a writer, and it was
always nice to have something that was sort of slightly incomplete left over
from the day before that wasn't too hard to begin.
GROSS: I understand that in the 15 years that you worked in the corporate
world, you kept your poetry a secret, and the fact that you were published was
something that your co-workers, your colleagues really didn't know. Why did
you feel the need to keep that secret?
Mr. GIOIA: Well, I didn't think it would do me any good in a very
competitive, old-fashioned company to be known as the corporate poet. So, you
know, I really felt that I had to succeed in business as a businessman and to
succeed in writing as a poet. And so I wanted to keep the lines separate.
And it wasn't really until I'd been in the business world a number of years
when Esquire magazine decided that they wanted to do a piece on me for part of
this special issue they did called the Esquire Register: Men and Women Under
40 Who Are Changing America, that my cover was blown. In fact, I tried to
convince Esquire not to run the article, but they said it wasn't my choice.
And so at that point, you know, I was outed.
GROSS: After you left the corporate world and started writing on a more
full-time basis, you said that, you know, in your own way, you missed the
camaraderie of office life. How did you feel about becoming an art
administrator when you were asked to become the head of The National Endowment
for the Arts?
Mr. GIOIA: I accepted the job in fear and trembling. I have to say that I
did not seek this job, and in fact, I turned it down, or I turned down the
possibility of interviewing for it two years ago and said I didn't even want
to be considered for it because I'm not a political person. I'm an artist,
and I have no political ambitions, and I was, you know, happy supporting
myself as a writer. I was very successful at it, and it was really only after
they chose a man named Michael Hammond, who died eight days in office and
during the same time, my own father passed away--I was with him to the very
end; I was at his bed when he died--and after September 11th, that when I was
approached about the job again, that I agreed to consider it.
And as corny as it may sound, after my father's death, after 9/11--you know, I
thought that, I mean, my father didn't want to go off and fight World War II.
I mean, he was not a warrior, but he spent four years as a radio operator and
a dive bomber, which is a fairly dangerous job, because he felt it was the
right thing to do. And so I felt, you know, that if indeed my country needed
me to come to The National Endowment for the Arts and to try to rebuild this
incredibly valuable institution that had been so roughly treated by history,
that I had a certain--Pardon me for saying this--patriotic obligation to do
this. I'd never served my country, and I was being asked to, so I should do
it. And so I girded up my loins like a man and came to Washington.
GROSS: Have you taken a stand on the so-called culture wars and on the
funding of art with sexual content, transgressive art?
Mr. GIOIA: Well, you know, the controversy that surrounded The National
Endowment involved a lot of things that were really outside of the endowment,
and some of these things actually have been looked at by the Supreme Court.
And they came to a decision which I think is the right one, which is that The
National Endowment for the Arts makes no decision based on content or point of
view. We make our decisions in terms of artistic excellence. That being
said, you know, I do think that, you know, one of the things that the Arts
Endowment needs to do is to think of itself as a national institution that
exists to serve the American people, not as a regional institution that serves
the arts establishment.
And I think that the things that got the Arts Endowment into trouble--and this
is not an opinion, I think, held by everyone--were not the controversies, but
it was a basic dilemma at the center of the endowment. In its very
distinguished history, the endowment had really never been able to serve most
of America. There were entire portions of the country that got very little
from it, especially rural areas, semirural areas, smaller cities, the inner
cities, and that we had not done a good job at the endowment of demonstrating
our public value.
I mean, the most important thing that I'm trying to do at the endowment, you
know, is to make sure that we spend the money in a egalitarian and democratic
way, that we reach the entire country with programs that people, you know,
feel are of value.
GROSS: You want to give an example?
Mr. GIOIA: I think the program that I'm most proud of at the moment is a new
venture called Shakespeare in American Communities. This is the largest tour
of Shakespeare in American history. We have six regional theater companies
that we are sending on a tour of over 100 midsize and smaller cities. These
are mostly cities that don't have live full-time professional drama on their
own. We're also visiting about a thousand high schools, and we're bringing
really the best new productions of Shakespeare to communities that might not
normally get this sort of fare.
Now in addition, we are working with the Department of Defense who is funding
us to bring a seventh company to tour military bases and the communities
surrounding the military bases, which are mainly isolated rural communities.
You know, I'm enormously enthusiastic about this program because I think it
brings art of the highest quality to the broadest possible cross-section of
GROSS: Well, it sounds like a great program, but you know, what you were
saying about funding art that reaches the largest audience, you know, raises a
larger question about what kind of art should be funded, and one argument
would be art that reaches the largest audience, but another argument--and I'd
like your opinion on this argument--is that it should just be art that maybe
won't reach a large audience, for example, art that might be considered, you
know, radical or fringy at this moment but that is so good and so original
that if it's funded and allowed to flourish, it can go on and affect the
mainstream maybe a few years down the line. Good examples would be, say, the
music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, which were considered very avant-garde
and kind of like odd and were very much, like, in the avant-garde music and
the avant-garde gallery scene when they started performing, and now, I mean,
TV commercials use music inspired by them, or maybe it's actually their music.
Who knows? But you see my point, that sometimes the stuff that seems very
fringy in its moment and isn't going to reach a large audience in that
particular moment will eventually have a profound effect on American culture.
Mr. GIOIA: I'm not sure I entirely accept that. That is the theory of the
avant-garde, and that's the theory of art that was articulated really in the
early 20th century in a kind of vanguard of the avant-garde and, to a certain
degree, applies, but I think by and large, most art, you know, has some direct
appeal. People may not entirely understand why they like it or why they
don't, but you know, I am a real believer in the power of art. And the one
thing I refuse to do as chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts is to
condescend to the American people to think that they are somehow incapable of
appreciating and engaging with the best art of its kind.
I mean, I look back to the WPA era in American arts, an enormously visionary
program during the Depression, you know, in which the best new artists, you
know, got involved in the creation of public works. And I do not believe, in
fact, I refuse to believe that artistic excellence and democratic
accessibility are mutually exclusive categories.
GROSS: My guest is poet Dana Gioia, the chair of The National Endowment for
the Arts. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is poet Dana Gioia, the chair of The National Endowment for
Now let me ask you another question that I think there's a lot of disagreement
about within the arts world, and that is: Should most money go toward funding
institutions or go toward funding individual artists? And there's, you know,
arguments that are very compelling on both sides. Well, what's your take on
Mr. GIOIA: Well, you know, I'm very practical about this, and I'll give you
an example. I mean, I have written two operatic libretti with two composers,
and I could give, let's say, a $20,000 grant to two composers to write an
opera, and they may or may not be able to get these operas produced, and you
know, the money would probably help them, you know, move the project along, or
I could give $40,000, some of these two grants, to an opera company, require
matching funds, and we've learned that when we give money to an institution,
they can usually leverage it to be about six times the amount. Take that
$40,000, turn it into about a quarter of a million dollars, put on a new opera
so there is a composer who actually gets it produced. He or she gets the
benefit of that. You know, the conductor gets the benefit of producing a new
opera. The company gets a new experience in terms of their own maturation as
a company. The musicians get work. The singers get work. The director, the
set designers, the custom designers get work, and the audience gets the
experience of seeing and hearing a new work in their own community.
Now we do have individual grants still in a number of categories, the poets,
fiction writers, translators, creative non-fiction, traditional arts and jazz
artists, but the other support that we give goes towards institutions, and I
think that's probably the most effective and efficient way of, as it were,
bringing the artist and the audience together.
GROSS: Some of the people who led the charge against federal funding for the
arts also were very anti-gay, most notably perhaps Newt Gingrich, and as you
know, there are a lot of gay men and women in the arts world. Is there any
hint of pressure on you and the NEA to limit the amount of money that goes
either toward gay-themed art or the funding of overtly gay artists?
Mr. GIOIA: None whatsoever. The National Endowment for the Arts exists to
serve all Americans. Once someone tells me that there's a class of Americans
that we're not supposed to serve, we're not supposed to become partners with,
I stop listening, but in all honesty, no one has mentioned anything of this.
I think it's a fear that is an unfounded one, and I am to the tips of my
fingers someone who is an egalitarian, and I believe that a public agency must
serve all the public. That's the same way that I want to bring Shakespeare to
In the 38 years of the endowment's history, we've never done a large program
for the military. There are 1.4 million Americans in uniform. They don't
tend to come from overprivileged backgrounds. You add their families
together, it's over three million people. They tend to live in semirural
areas where there's not, you know, many cultural resources. We need to do
something for them. Otherwise, we're not really serving America.
GROSS: Are you thinking about the Shakespeare plays...
Mr. GIOIA: Yes.
GROSS: ...about the military like "Henry V"?
Mr. GIOIA: Yeah. We're bringing "Macbeth" actually on the military tour
because we figured it's...
GROSS: Oh, you're actually doing a military tour.
Mr. GIOIA: We are. I mean, I went to the Pentagon and I had a meeting with
the undersecretary of Defense and I told him, `Sir, I believe I'm probably the
first chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts who's ever come to the
Pentagon,' and he agreed that I, indeed, probably was, and I said, `I know I'm
the only chairman who has a sister currently on active duty because she was
called up out of the reserves.' You know, I've got one brother who's a jazz
musician, one brother who is a deejay/rap music expert, and a sister who's a
jock. And she went into the Navy. And he said yeah, that I was probably the
only chairman that had a sister on active duty. I said, `Well, there's two
firsts. I want to make a third first today. I want you to help, you know,
get the Department of Defense to fund a military tour of Shakespeare,' and I'm
happy to say that, with the support of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, that now
seems to be coming a reality. And we're going to be bringing a tour of
Shakespeare to the military community, 16 bases and all the surrounding
schools, and I'm really very proud of that. It's a historical first.
GROSS: Interesting. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GIOIA: It's been a great pleasure.
GROSS: Dana Gioia is the chair of The National Endowment for the Arts. His
latest book of poetry is called "Interrogations at Noon."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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