Obama picks former Rep. Jim Leach to head National Endowment for the Humanities* (updated)
President Obama is now two-for-two in making somewhat unorthodox choices for the top spots in the agencies that help set and fund the nation’s cultural agenda. After recently tapping Rocco Landesman, a Broadway producer and theater owner, to head the National Endowment for the Arts, Obama today picked a longtime former Republican congressman, Jim Leach of Iowa, to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“I don’t look at it as a partisan circumstance at all,” Leach said when reached at Princeton University, where since 2007 he has been a professor of public and international affairs, recently teaching courses on “Congress and Foreign Policy” and “The Conjunction of U.S. and Chinese Foreign Policy.”
In a statement, Obama described Leach as “a valued and dedicated public servant” who can carry on the NEH’s “vital mission of ... giving the American public access to the rich resources of our culture.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Leach, 66, would succeed Bruce Cole, a former Indiana University art historian who served seven years after his 2001 appointment by then-President George W. Bush, making him the longest-tenured chairman the humanities endowment has had since it was created in 1965. Carole M. Watson is serving as interim director of the $155-million-a-year agency, whose grant-making casts a wide net in backing researchers, authors, documentary filmmakers, exhibitions and education in history, literature and arts.
“I’m a great respecter of conservative values as well as liberal values, but they have to be understood to be appreciated,” Leach said. “The role of the NEH is to provide perspective, and perspective is the most difficult thing to apply to the events of the day.”
Asked whether he would push to increase funding for what by federal standards is a minuscule agency, Leach said he “will be supporting the administration” in its budgeting decisions. But he said “the arts and humanities are fundamental to our society, particularly in difficult times. In the Great Depression ... we spent far more on the arts and humanities, relative to [national economic output] than we do today. Nothing is more important to understanding what’s happening in society, particularly in a fast-changing world.”
Obama has proposed increasing NEH funding to $171.3 million in 2010, a bigger boost than he’s seeking for the NEA, which would increase from $155 million to $161.3 million.
If he assumes the post in Washington, Leach, who still has a home in Iowa City, would return to familiar turf: He served 30 years in Congress before joining Princeton’s faculty; in 2007-08 he took a leave from Princeton to serve as the interim director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Regarded as a political moderate, Leach was one of six House Republicans who voted against the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. He narrowly lost a reelection bid in 2006 to Democrat Dave Loebsack. During the campaign, he told state GOP strategists to stop negative campaign mailers, called Loebsack to apologize and warned the national Republican Party that he would refuse to join its congressional caucus in the coming term if negative tactics continued. Loebsack responded with television ads praising Leach as a “good man.”
Last year, Leach became one of the first Republicans to cross party lines and endorse Obama for president over John McCain.
In March, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution to name the federal courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, in Leach’s honor.
“Jim’s legacy of bipartisan statesmanship, his leadership in foreign affairs, his dedication to public service, and his capable representation of his constituents left a lasting impact,” Loebsack, who introduced the resolution, said at the time according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
In 2006, Leach received the Congressional Arts Leadership Award conferred annually by the Americans for the Arts advocacy group and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. They cited him as an advocate for increased arts and humanities funding and as a co-sponsor of legislation — still not passed — that would allow artists to take larger tax deductions for works they donate to museums and charities. Current law allows artists to deduct the cost of the materials they use to create a work; Leach proposed allowing them to deduct a donated piece’s fair market value.
“He’s a savvy legislative strategist, which is very valuable, and besides political knowledge he has an understanding and love of the humanities and the arts,” said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts. “He works well with people, and this is a time when we need leaders who work well with other leaders.”
Louise Slaughter, a New York Democratic congresswoman who co-chairs the congressional arts caucus, issued a statement Wednesday backing Leach’s nomination: "The endowment needs strong leadership and I am confident that Jim Leach will provide it."
-- Mike Boehm
Photo of Leach in 1995: Gary Cameron / Reuters