Leonard Garment

Who Pays the Piper, Calls the Tune

VTR Date: July 29, 1989

Guest: Garment, Leonard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Leonard Garment
Title: “Who Pays The Piper, Calls The Tune”
VTR: 7/29/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when today
S guest was here a few months back I focused our discussion mostly on his years in the Nixon White House as Special Counsel to the President of the United States…on a fascinating New Yorker magazine piece he had written about Richard Nixon’s strengths in arguing a famous privacy-vs.-the-press case before the Supreme Court…and on my guest’s own great lawyerly skill at what he calls “political litigation”, which he says “means trying to present your case publicly” as well as in the courtroom.

But I didn’t have time then to ask Leonard Garment, who these days describes himself simply as “a Washington, DC lawyer” about his profound interest in the arts, and particularly about some innovative ideas he has set forth concerning their support in America.

And, believe me, we must listen to him carefully in this area, too. For as William Honan pointed out recently in THE NEW YORK TIMES, as Special Counsel to Mr. Nixon, Leonard Garment is credited with having persuaded the President to lead Congress to increase the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts from eight million dollars in 1969 to nearly 75 million five years later. And, in the arts, as everywhere, money talks.

But, of course, that is a particularly nettlesome problem right now. For who pays the piper does so often call the tune, which really doesn’t seem to be such a totally outrageous notion, particularly when the piper is being paid, at least in part, with tax dollars. And even as we record this program today, the press is filled with stories of Congressional protests and retaliation against art projects that have received public monies, but do not enjoy public support. So, I wonder, Mr. Garment, to begin with, what’s your own fix on this question of…shall we call it, “accountability”?

Garment: Well, I think that controversy that’s current as you and I talk, and that may, hopefully, have been resolved by the time your viewers watch this show, is…is not something that’s altogether unexpected. The notion of accountability is something that applies to every program that uses Federal funds, and the arts institutions have to be accountable for the way they spend money in terms of the regularity of their procedures. They should not have to be accountable to Congress in a way that represents an extreme of self-censorship or represents a response to various political pressures that reflect the tastes of particular Congressmen. I think, however, the main issue that’s being lost in this current controversy, is sort of the heart of the problem, that is being chewed up by the extremes on both sides. On the one hand the Jesse Helms contigent that’s very angry at certain of the exhibits funded with Federal dollars like the Mapplethorpe photography exhibit and the exhibit that contained the Serrano photographs is an expected response from that group of Congressmen. Many of them have never liked the arts programs, have always been waiting for something that would justify chopping away at the program.

Heffner: And here it is.

Garment: Right. On the other hand, there are…there’s another extreme which is the reaction and response of people in the arts community that, that Congress can’t have anything to say in the way of even expressing a view with respect to the extremes, let us say, of programs that are supported with tax funds. Now, I think both points of view are extreme and exaggerated, and I think what’s being lost sight of at this time is the important, the central issue is how do we protect, conserve the arts program of the Federal government, and protect it in a way that does not involve censorship, but also reflects a kind of a serious, self-critical restraint on the part of the funding organizations because of the nature of American politics.

Heffner: You say “the nature of American politics”. But what about the nature of American thinking, the very cultural level that the arts endowment is supposed to involved with?

Garment: Well, part of the problem is historic. The tradition of Federal support for the arts is a very young one ion America. Even in Great Britain, the English artists had to suffer through the Puritanism of the 17th and 18th centuries, and then the free market, laissez-faire attitudes of the 19th century. And it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that, that there was a breakthrough and national support for the arts was initiated. That, in contrast to the European or continental tradition, an aristocratic tradition of support for the arts where almost everything was capable of being supported because the culture was familiar with the idea of support by the central government of the arts. In the United States, I think in the late sixties when the program was first started, in miniscule form, by Lyndon Johnson…it was an earlier predecessor initiative by John Kennedy…Arthur Schlesinger was involved in that…and then Lyndon Johnson initiated the legislation that gave rise to the National Endowment, and by the end of the sixties we had still a very real problem with respect to significant support for the arts. And it was only that Richard Nixon, being a real conservative, was able to bring to bear the same kind of jujitsu, in a sense, on behalf of the arts, as he did on behalf of the initiative to China, that he was able to do at least two things…there may have been others…that were against the perceived grain of the Nixon Administration. One, to go to China; secondly, to support the arts. So the program got started. But now, we’re back having to resolve the very special resistance that comes about because of the natural Puritanism, laissez-faire attitudes, popular hostility towards avant-garde art. Resistance within the Congress to art that is thought to be excessively provocative is once more re-asserting itself, and that’s very dangerous for this very, very valuable and yet, very young and very fragile program for the support of the arts.

Heffner: You know, I’m fascinated by your combining those two things, President Nixon’s trip to China, and opening up, or in reversing as you said that only he, as a certified conservative could, his attitude towards the arts. I could see what the plus was in going to China. Why did he emerge as the first significant contributor to the arts? Can I attribute that to your efforts?

Garment: (Laughter) In a very…in a minor way, and in an accidental way. You know I think that there are three factors and many others. One was that I think he was interested in having presented to him a program where the intense hostilities generated by the Vietnam War would be less pivotal. I mean the arts is something that, that drew general support. It was something that was attractive to conservatives, as well as liberals. It was particularly attractive that Richard Nixon, of all people, would lend his support to this doubling, year by year, of the arts budget. So I think in a kind of a real political sense, he saw this as something that was…would help, in a small way, to abate the tensions and hostilities. This was one program that was not divided between hawks and doves. Secondly, I think, it’s important to realize that Richard Nixon was not and is not a philistine. I mean he had feelings about, about the arts and…

Heffner: He plays the piano.

Garment: …plays the piano, he listens to serious music. He’s always had a kind of a personal warmth for artists, and great admiration of many artists. So, I think it was not inconsistent with his own philosophy. Third, there was the fact that, and it’s a minor fact, but again, accidents are so crucial in the world of politics…I think he was quite happy to do something consistent with his own views and his own politics, that was consistent with something that I was pressing upon him. I didn’t have a very exalted role in the Administration. I had worked closely with him as his law partner, and in the campaign, and between myself and, more importantly, Nancy Hanks, who was the first Chairman of the National Endowment, I think he was persuaded that this was a program that was worth supporting. That it would have intangible benefits, to him and to the country.

Heffner: What do you think the President would have said about “accountability”?

Garment: I think he would have said, as I think many of us now feel, that all taxpayers’ funds, in a sense, have to be accounted for. And this has been said by many, many people in the present controversy…when anyone enters the political arena, the price of the ticket is accountability. There is a political price, and if an artist wants to be totally free of that degree of accountability, then he has to be very careful about accepting support from a national foundation which derives all of its funds from the taxpayers of the country. So I think that accountability is the heart of the matter.

Heffner: Of course, nobody deals with that until there is a controversy.

Garment: Well, there should be a constant state of alert to the number of people that are waiting out there for an opportunity to chop away at the arts, as they are to chop away at various other programs.

Heffner: You mean “constant state” in which artists and other recipients of funds…

Garment: Oh, I think…no, no. I really…I don’t think it’s the burden of the artist, I think the artists are doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to create art. I don’t think that they sit down at the piano or at the canvas or with their cameras and decide that they’re going to do something which will either earn or sustain a grant from a federal endowment.

Heffner: Then who has to be so careful?

Garment: I think it is…I think it is the officials who are…represent the President as the members of the Endowment, the peer panels, and the people who are presiding over the museums that receive Federal money.

Heffner: But the only trouble with that, Mr. Garment, is that you also talked about the regularity of their proceedings. You said before that they have to be “strict and regular, they have to have proceedings…”

Garment: Well, they have to know what they’re doing, I mean…

Heffner: Okay.

Garment: …they can’t say “well, this just slipped by”. I mean they have to know what it is the money is going for.

Heffner: But when a peer group says, “this is it”.

Garment: By and large, that’s it.

Heffner: Okay, but in the instance in which that was “it” alright, but “it” was something that could give rise to the present controversy, then what do you do?

Garment: Everybody makes mistakes. I think I may be in a minority view here, but I think that Corcoran did the right thing in cancelling the show after it realized the implications of the display in an institution that was supported in substantial measure by taxpayer funds and within a stone’s throw of the Congress, and that involved the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Heffner: But I gu8ess what I’m really getting at is whether, indeed, given the fact that there is, and has to be such accountability, whether the arts, as you help set them up, can, should, depend upon, or count upon or accept governmental money, because the strings are always going to be there.

Garment: That’s a fair question. And that’s always been an issue. It was an issue when we started, it was an issue during the early days. It continues to be an issue. I don’t think that…
Heffner: How do you feel about that?

Garment: Well, I think it…well, there are many things in life that we have to contend with, without having a precise, categorical answer to each and every contingency that might arise. I think this problem, by now I hope, will have resolved itself. I trust that the very, very extreme legislation that was added to the appropriations bill by Senator Helms will have been dissolved in committee so that it, I mean it’s really a legislative abomination. If one tried to construct a piece of legislation that was more violative, not only of Constitutional norms, but of every norm that we think about, as well as the minimal requirements of clear language, it would be the Helms amendment which called for…called upon the Endowment not to fund anything that was indecent, improper, repugnant to religion, or to non-religion. Just absurd.

Heffner: Mr. Garment, if you put that resolution, or if you put that…

Garment: Legislation.

Heffner: …bill…legislation, to a vote…

Garment: Oh.

Heffner: …in this country, do you think it could go up or down?

Garment: It would go up.

Heffner: Right.

Garment: No question about that. I’ve…you’ve probably heard about this…it was an experiment where somebody translated into common parlance, the ten principle Amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, and it was shown to a wide sample audience, and the audience, by seventy-five or eighty percent said that those are basically radical, revolutionary, anti-American notions. So that I think we do depend upon institutions to be responsive to a populace mood, which is not…I mean it’s not anything to sneer at, it’s not anything to be condescended to. I mean the general sense of this country is, is not one that’s hospitable to avant-garde art and to the very complicated nuanced, very sophisticated ideas that are expressed, particularly in the visual arts. And, it is…the burden devolves upon people that are running these programs, and the museum directors to make that distinction between Federal funds and private display, and not feel that they have to assume that there is a kind of an obligation to spend Federal money to support any kind of art. Now there is a very small area where this kind of self-restraint, or if you will, self-censorship, has to be applied. I mean, I think there’s a very, very broad range of controversial, cutting-edge art, visual, literary, musical that should be fought for, and that should not be tossed over the side because of fears about the action of the Congress. But he ability to protect that 98%, 99% of all art, the conventional, the classical, the modern, the provocative, depends upon exercising great discrimination with respect to the 1% that’s going to set off a nuclear explosion.

Heffner: Okay, we get into this discussion because we’re talking about funding the arts. In this instance we meet at this table at a time when that funding is threatened thanks to this controversy. But let’s turn to the suggestion that you made, which I never got to last time. You’ve said, “Hey, in the budget crunch, with the deficit, the arts are suffering financially, hang on to the educational community or the educational effort in this country. Americans love to support education, that’s the way…if you identify yourself with education…you’ll keep your head about water”. But, Linda Murray, who’s the Associate Producer of THE OPEN MIND, said to me, “Garment suggests that one way to help secure funding for the arts is to link it with education. How exactly will that work? It seems that education, too, is suffering at the hands of an increasingly deficit-conscious society. Now, if we could link art with defense, we might have something”. And seriously, when you take a community, the educational community, that is doing as poorly as it is, it believes, even with an “education President” in the White house, how do you find the support that you’re looking for?

Garment: I’m not…I wasn’t, when I made the…I think I offered that suggestion in the course of the Nancy Hanks lecture that I gave last year. I’m not suggesting that this is something that’s going to happen overnight. I’m not suggesting that there’s some magic, “Open Sesame” formulation here that will result in arts and education walking down the aisle and emerging married and profiting from all that. I was making a suggestion with respect to a kind of strategic approach to the problems of the arts that would build a constituency to support the arts through dangerous times, whether they’re financial or ideological, of the nature that we’re encountering now, to build the audiences, to build a political constituency for the arts. Now it’s true, education has its problems also, and it, too, may be able to benefit from that kind of a heightened sensitivity to the…to the contribution that can be made by the community of artists. Essentially what I was saying is that the, the function of the arts in the educational process has been recognized in kind of a token way. That the nature of the education process, particularly early education, is one that benefits immensely from the utilization of the techniques of…that have been derived from the arts, and by arts educators. I’m not saying that this is…all involves having violinists playing in the classroom, or poets in the classroom, but rather that the curriculum be thought through, and arts trained educators be given the resources and the time to work, particularly with children, pre-school children, children in the early stages of their education. Because the educational researchers have concluded that the arts have a formidable role to play in opening up the eyes and the ears and the minds of young persons, and particularly those that come from the kind of communities that have such terrible educational problems and needs, poverty communities, where the nurturing, by the educational process should be directed towards expanding the capacity of young children to learn. And the way children can be helped to learn, many things are involved obviously, but one way, that has been neglected, is through the use of the techniques that have been developed in the arts. It’s essentially what I was talking about. That doesn’t mean that we stop programs for the support of orchestras, and museums, and all the other programs, but rather that there be a shift of…of a thoughtful nature towards giving very real standing to the educational capacity of the arts in enlarging the capacity of education, itself, to perform what people expect it to perform.

Heffner: I thought it was very touching, what you say now, and what you have written…that point that you refer back to your own musical education, you refer back to music as an opening, as an educational device in your own childhood.

Garment: Well, it did…I mean to…with the speed of a bullet, let me take you through the career so that we can get to this point. I started out as a mediocre musician and would up as a less-than-significant one. I had the great fortune, as a young musician, playing at weddings and dances and bar mitzvahs, I had the good fortune then to be in the company of very good musicians, some who became leading jazz artists in this country. So I learned early enough to get out of that business and to study law and do as well as I could at this new pursuit. But I did learn a great deal from my time in music, and I did learn about improvisation. I did learn about taking advantage of opportunities. It did open my own mind to a variety or resources that are available in one’s life, and most importantly, it gave me a very strong sense of standards. And that is, I suppose, why when, when President Nixon said, “You can handle the cultural program:…I was very happy to do that and very, very deeply committed to the idea of expanding support for the arts.

Heffner: Well I know how deeply committed you are, and I have to ask you whether the…not just the present climate, I’m not talking about the present controversy, but the, the squeeze, the dollar squeeze…if that continues, on a comparative level, what will be the fate of the arts in this country? How impactful will that be?

Garment: Well, I really don’t have the expertise to make that kind of a precise judgment. I think that the arts are in a real squeeze, and the foundations are providing less funding. The large corporations are shifting their grants more in the…sort of a cutting, or hard, hard services activities, dealing with the central city and the like. So that the artists and the young artists who are coming into the field are confronted with a, with a market that is diminishing. I think there is, therefore, a tremendous need to find a way of enlarging the opportunities for artists and to do that by finding a new and important contributory role for the arts in areas of public life, such as education, that will enable the different groups to join together and become a more powerful constituency for the support of the arts. In short, to build the audience for the arts, which is now diminishing with the death of liberal arts colleges.

Heffner: Of course, you were the spokesman for the arts during the Nixon years.

Garment: Yes.

Heffner: There really isn’t such a spokesman in such a powerful position now. You probably are opposed to the idea of a “Minister of Culture”…

Garment: Yes.

Heffner: …or a “minister of the Arts”. What chance is there to elevate our concerns to the level where it is effective?

Garment: Well, I…you know, it’s, it’s idle to hope that another Nancy Hanks will spring up. I think there is a new Chairman, who presumably will be deeply devoted to this program and he’s a supporter and friend of the President. I think it really is a function of the activity of all the groups that have deep concerns here. Not simply to come together and be exercised by the predictable behavior of members of the Congress when something provocative is done, but to do that work day after day, and problem after problem, enlarging the political constituency. You don’t get Federal money for anything unless the Congress feels that there’s a political payoff, so to speak. There has to be a great desire to have it done.

Heffner: And you still want that Federal money.

Garment: I still want that Federal money.

Heffner: Do you…

Garment: I think I think it’s a sound program, but if I can…

Heffner: Please.

Garment: …just lobby a little bit for my point of view…

Heffner: We’ve got a minute for you to lobby.

Garment: Okay. The problem with…that has arisen in this recent, or current controversy, which I hope will wane and will have waned by the time I…we’re on the air, but that will come back from time to time, the problem is that the American program for the national support of the arts is very…is in its infancy, in relative terms. You don’t put an infant out on the fire escape in a snow storm, if you want it to grow up and to have its own feet and be able to walk and to be able to defend itself. And I think the unfortunate part of the reactions, on both sides, on both extremes to what is happening now, is that one or two horrible events, miscalculations in the best of faith, but something that provided grist for the anti-arts mill, has focused everyone’s attention on the problems of the arts, rather than the possibilities and potential of the arts.

Heffner: Well, it will be interesting to see the next time you come back to this table, whether the potentials and the possibilities have been emphasized. Leonard Garment, thank you so much for joining…

Garment: Thanks for having me.

Heffner: …me again today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s themes, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.