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Bench Memos

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The NEH vs. the Supreme Court?



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Last August, former Iowa Republican congressman Jim Leach took office as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  What exactly were his qualifications for this post, other than being an Obamaphile Republican and thus a safely “bipartisan” appointment, was and remains a mystery.  Since his appointment, unsurprisingly, Leach has appeared to take little interest in the actual work of the NEH–support for research, publication, and education in the humanities–and instead has been gallivanting around the country on a 50-state “civility tour,” giving mostly forgettable speeches (archived here–see especially those of September 17 and 29, and November 6 and 20) whose goal seems to be to get Americans to stop criticizing Barack Obama in terms that offend Chairman Leach.  Even if there were a civility deficit in our politics–a proposition entertained only by those who are both historically ignorant and politically thin-skinned–it would hardly be the proper business of the NEH chairman to embark on a Kumbaya tour.  But Leach’s call for better manners is transparently partisan, an act not of civility but of servility–to the president who appointed him.

Any doubts on this score were settled by Leach’s last foray, a speech on February 3 at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.  After recycling some tired old material from past speeches, Leach spent the final two-thirds of a 5,500-word address excoriating the Supreme Court for its decision in the Citizens United case in January.  His analysis is heedless of the facts in the case, his arguments do not even address the merits of those on the other side but merely caricature them, and he accuses the justices in the majority of jeopardizing “idealism” in the country and instead choosing to “magnify public cynicism.”  (Evidently Leach spoke again in this vein over the weekend at Princeton, where he was given an alumni award.)

But even if you like the stuff Leach is peddling here, what on earth does he think he is doing, making such pronouncements as the chairman of the NEH?  Is this really a perch where the White House line on the Citizens United case ought to be parroted?  Just imagine if Bruce Cole, Leach’s predecessor, had decided to make “wartime harmony” a theme of his chairmanship, and had gone around the country giving speeches attacking the Supreme Court’s decisions on the rights of Guantanamo detainees.  Or if Bill Bennett, chairman during Ronald Reagan’s first term, had made “the glories of the market” his theme and had given speeches attacking the opponents of supply-side tax cuts.  Both would have been justly criticized–first, last, and most heatedly by the liberal media establishment, but justly nonetheless.  Leach is plainly guilty of an equivalent offense.

As the Endowment’s 1965 enabling legislation declares, “the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.”  The programs and expenditures of the NEH should foster “public support and confidence in the use of taxpayer funds” on the promotion of humanities study and education.  And the six-year staggered terms of the 26-member National Council on the Humanities (which advises the chairman and whose members are presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate) suggest that the Endowment is intended to be politically neutral.  I don’t know how often the Council meets, but its distinguished members–some liberal, some conservative–should be able to agree that the chairman’s job is not to spend taxpayer dollars on the politicization of his office, but to attend to the Endowment’s grant programs, and to do so in ways that encourage scholars of all persuasions to apply for NEH support.  When they next meet, the Council members should give Leach’s leash a short, sharp jerk.



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