Jim Leach Becomes National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman

"We should have greater international exchanges," Jim Leach says. The NEH chairman hopes to bridge cultures.
"We should have greater international exchanges," Jim Leach says. The NEH chairman hopes to bridge cultures. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the high-ceilinged office of Jim Leach, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, you'll find portraits of figures both rogue and rabble-rousing. Confucius, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Giuseppe Verdi, Albert Einstein, Chief Black Hawk, Madame Curie, Charles Darwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy.

These are not government-issued prints, but rather striking, one-of-a-kind works: heads painted on wood and fine silk screens. And they're from Leach's own collection, art from the heartland, art from the craftsmen of Iowa City.

The gallery is fitting for Leach, 66, who in August took over the federal nurturing of scholars, publishers, translators, filmmakers and writers, and who has himself been called both a rogue and a rabble-rouser. Early in his career he was a Foreign Service officer at the State Department, quitting the evening of the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in conjunction with the Watergate investigation. Nixon's attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned in protest, and so did Leach.

He went on to become a Republican member of Congress for 30 years, although one with a distinct voting record: He was against authorizing military force in Iraq, against Newt Gingrich when the Georgian ran for speaker of the House. He held hearings on the Whitewater land development project and questioned the roles of Bill and Hillary Clinton in that deal. He voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. Last year, Leach backed Barack Obama, his first-ever endorsement of a Democrat, and told the country why in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

His name resonates all across town. Jack Evans, the former chairman of the audit committee of Chicago's Federal Reserve Bank, is quick to testify to his friend's iconoclasm. He remembers a Washington meeting at the Reserve about eight years ago, when he ran into then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in the hall. "I was trying to say something intelligent and I said, 'I bring you greetings from our congressman in Iowa,' " Evans remembers. Greenspan asked him who. "I said Jim Leach. And Greenspan said, 'The brightest guy on Capitol Hill.' When I told Jim, he looked the other way and was very dismissive."

Watching the changing of the guard at the NEH, conservative analysts raise just one concern. "One of the unstated victories of the Bush administration is that they took the politics and hot-button nature out of the NEH," says Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for government relations. "Since then, they seemed to be promoting great poems, great literature. There is a challenge for Mr. Leach . . . not to let the agency become politicized."

Under all those whimsical portraits in his new headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between his old stomping grounds of the State Department and Capitol Hill, Leach is frowning. He has a concern, too, and it cuts across liberal-moderate-conservative fault lines. In this era of Internet blasts and ornery town-hall meetings, Leach wants to buck what he considers one of the 21st century's most insidious trends: the end of civility. It's something he's been harping on since the mid-1990s.

"I am appalled by the notion of cultural wars. We used to address ourselves as a melting pot, and diversity is a wonderful thing, but common objectives are also good," he says. For an advocate of tempered talk, the summer's brawls at the town halls on health care were unfortunate. "A little vibrancy of debate is reasonable," says Leach. "But I am amazed at how little attention is brought to words. We have a president who has been called a socialist, a communist, a fascist. And then I've heard the word 'secession.' "

For a time in the 1990s, the NEH suffered collateral damage from the Capitol Hill squabbles over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEH budget was also slashed, hitting a low point of $110 million during '96 and '97, although it has climbed back to $155 million for the current year.

Now that we have a president who is a humanist, as Leach puts it, and the attacks against the NEH have subsided, he can worry about broader issues. "Here, there is no sense of the hurly-burly of Capitol Hill, no sense of immediacy," he says.

But if things heat up again, it's worth noting that the NEH's lead defender was an all-state wrestler in high school (the 1960 state champion in the 138-pound weight class); he is also a member of two wrestling halls of fame, and a former football player at Princeton. A small man with a cap of snow-white hair, Leach speaks slowly about his new charge.

"It was Einstein who once suggested splitting the atom had changed everything but the way of thinking. I think about studying beauty, truth, justice, those aspects of NEH's work. There is a steadiness to the agency that should never be disrupted."

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