Correction to This Article
The article misidentified an organization endorsing the nomination of former congressman Jim Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is the Association of American Universities, not the American Association of Universities.

Obama Nominates GOP's Jim Leach to Lead National Endowment for the Humanities

Jim Leach in 2005, toward the end of his 30 years in the House. Now, he is the president's pick to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Jim Leach in 2005, toward the end of his 30 years in the House. Now, he is the president's pick to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Associated Press)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

President Obama yesterday nominated former Republican congressman Jim Leach, who represented Iowa for 30 years and now teaches at Princeton University, as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The appointment, pending the approval of the Senate, marks another choice of a seasoned and moderate Republican to a prominent position in the Obama administration. Ray LaHood, now transportation secretary, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the nominations of Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China and John McHugh as secretary of the Army set the pattern.

As a highly visible politician for three decades, Leach, 66, may not seem a natural fit for the country's leading humanities job. However, Leach has had a hearty academic life, which is fitting for many NEH projects. He has a political science degree from Princeton and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in Soviet politics. After Princeton and Hopkins, he was a research student at the London School of Economics. He served on the Princeton board of trustees from 2002 to 2006 and has at least seven honorary degrees.

"I have a long-term interest in the humanities. The NEH is what some might think of as an out-of-the-way outpost in Washington, but it is a special place," said Leach from his office at Princeton, where he teaches public and international affairs. "The hallmark of our times is change and acceleration, but we have to provide the history."

Leach dismissed suggestions that his appointment was part of partisan political maneuvering: "I feel this president is attempting to reach out -- that is a natural instinct for him. Today's challenge is to bring America together."

During his 15 terms in the House of Representatives, Leach founded and served as co-chairman of the Congressional Humanities Caucus and he was also chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services. After he left Congress in 2007, Leach, a Princeton 1964 graduate, took a post in the school's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was also the interim director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The NEH, created in 1965, supports the country's endeavors in scholarship and teaching, principally in the areas of history, literature and philosophy. For example: Since 2003, the agency has given classic books such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to 13,000 schools and libraries. In the fiscal 2010 budget the president sent to Congress last month, he requested $171.3 million for the agency, an increase of $16 million over the last appropriation.

In a statement, Obama said: "I am confident that with Jim as its head, the National Endowment for the Humanities will continue on its vital mission of supporting the humanities and giving the American public access to the rich resources of our culture. Jim is a valued and dedicated public servant and I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead." Leach endorsed Obama during the campaign, spoke at the Democratic convention and represented him at a gathering of world leaders right after the election.

Leach started his political climb as a staffer to Donald Rumsfeld, then a member of the House, and later went into the foreign service. In Congress, Leach has always been a moderate who did not vote a straight party line. He voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution, joining just five other Republicans.

The National Humanities Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 humanities groups, and the American Association of Universities yesterday endorsed the nomination.

On his old turf, the reaction was enthusiastic.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NEH's funding, said Leach "was considered to be one of the most enlightened members of the other party. He is a real gentleman, very scholarly and has the political skills." Dicks, who was elected the same year as Leach, added: "He will be able to raise the morale inside the agency and work with the state agencies and make sure we have a broad distribution of the humanities throughout the country."

"The endowment needs strong leadership and I am confident that Jim Leach will provide it," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a longtime supporter of the arts and humanities. "Our culture is enriched by the work of the NEH and the scholars, and I hope to see the agency flourish under Jim's leadership."

Like many organizations, the humanities endowment is trying to keep pace with technology. Robert G. Perry, the chairman of the National Trust for the Humanities, a nonprofit group that raises funds and brings partners into NEH projects, said: "A lot of things are disappearing. We want to make the humanities available to the world. We really have to understand technology and make it available to connect and reconnect."

Leach said some of the NEH programs might sound esoteric, but "the arts and humanities are vastly more important in troubled times."


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