As Reelection Curtain Time Nears, Senator From New York Changes Tune on NEA
By Blaine Harden
If politics is a kind of acting, then Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) can certainly act against type.
Compare his performance today here on the sun-drenched steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with one he gave eight years ago in the Senate. Both times the subject was the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet the senator, who is up for reelection next year and whose poll numbers in this liberal state could use some sweetening, proved himself capable of giving two dramatically different readings of the same material.
In 1989, three years from his next election, D'Amato joined Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C) in bashing the NEA. On the floor of the Senate, D'Amato ripped up a catalogue showing the work of NEA-supported artist Andres Serrano. Attacking a Serrano photograph that showed Christ on a crucifix submerged in urine, D'Amato said that federal money for "such trash" was "shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving."
Today on the steps of the Met, where the senator did a chorus-style kick with NEA-supported dancers clad in shimmering gold unitards, D'Amato was four-square in favor of federal money for the arts, especially as that money flows into his home state, which happens to be the largest recipient of NEA grants.
"The health and vitality of the arts community must be nurtured, must be strengthened, and now is not the time to turn our backs on it," D'Amato said here.
The senator went on to condemn a House Republican effort that would slash 90 percent of the NEA's $99 million budget before phasing out the agency altogether. D'Amato noted that when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) claimed that the NEA channeled federal money to a cultural elite, that the speaker "must have been having a bad hair day."
Finally, D'Amato said there is nothing inconsistent about his having once condemned "obnoxious, terrible" NEA grants to unworthy artists and his current, high-profile support for giving federal money to worthy artists, especially those who live and vote in New York.
D'Amato's news conference today appears to part of a major effort by the third-term senator to spruce up his image in advance of next year's election. The sprucing-up campaign is being waged on many fronts.
The senator, who watched his approval ratings in polls nose-dive in 1995 and 1996 while he chaired the Senate committee investigating the Whitewater affair, has since washed his hands of the entire matter. He has publicly scolded independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for politicizing the investigation and said Americans are "sick and tired" of the whole business.
After voting last year to bar legal immigrants from qualifying for welfare benefits, D'Amato has said he made a mistake and this year is a champion of restoring the benefits. New York has a huge immigrant population and surveys after last year's election showed that higher-than-expected numbers of them, especially Asians, are voting.
D'Amato, too, has undergone something of a rebirth as a friend of the Earth. The senator who last year received a zero-rating from the League of Conservation Voters has this year bought television ads upstate that boast of his love for the environment. D'Amato raised GOP eyebrows when he wrote last week to President Clinton to back Clinton's strengthening of the Clean Air Act.
All these shifts toward Democratic positions in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-two have struck the senator's Democratic rivals as something less than genuine.
"His transformation on the NEA from Jesse Helms to Jesse Jackson is just another example of his political plastic surgery," complained Mark Green, New York City's elected public advocate and a Democrat challenger for D'Amato's seat.
D'Amato, though, has sharply improved his approval ratings this year, according to state polls.
"I was trying to think of something that D'Amato has done wrong politically in the past year and I couldn't," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Poll. "The NEA today. What is it going to be tomorrow? Fresh milk? Apple pie? The guy is incredible."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company