A recent Washington Post Style section carried two stories about parties involving the National Endowment for the Arts and its chairman, Livingston Biddle. This is high. The average I'd say, is about two stories a week. But this was NEA's 15th anniversary, promoted by a New York public-relation firm hired for the occasion by the Endowment, much to the annoyance of its own extensive (and expensive) public-affairs staff. There were two photos of Biddle: here he is at Rosalynn Carter's White House reception playing the cymbals; and here he is again at Roger Stevens' part in the Kennedy Center atrium, wearing a T-shirt that says, "You've Gotta Have Art." Very festive.

Perhaps there is some private anguish we do not know about, but following it in the newspapers, Biddle's life seems to be an endless series of parties, gala openings, first nights, and other celebrations of the arts, the Arts Endowment, and his own good self. The chronicled life of his counterpart at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Joseph Duffey, seems only slightly more sedate. It's no wonder, of course, that people want to show their apreciation to two gentlemen who give away more than $150 million a year each to support worthy cultural endeavors. They are the modern Medicis. Trouble is, they're Medicis with our money, not theirs. Most of the parties are paid for with out money too (a distinguishing feature of the Washington social scene). Reading in the paper about the glamorous goings-on leaves a definite impression that some people have forgotten who should be grateful to whom.

The federal culture was born in 1965 with the founding of the twin Endowments. As described in Michael Mooney's book, the culture has grown to look a lot like the federal dam culture and the federal aircraft culture and any other sector of the economy that gets hooked on government money. Indeed if arts contractors were held to the same standards as cement contractors, there probably would be a few poets in jail by now. The taxpayer millions finance a few worthy endeavors. But they also finance layers of bureaucracy, a whole little world of parasitical consultants with names like "Cultural Resources, Inc." (including consultants on giving parties), and worthless projects supported because of favoritism, political clout, cloddish standards or ethnic blackmail.

A typical story Mooney tells is of a woman who was happily working, for a $1000 advance, on a history of the Bennington Dance Program, until she was trampled under an identical project funded by NEH to the tune of $20,000. It is also typical that the Humanities Endowment should be doing this while the Arts Endowment has dozens of programs relating to dance. Mooney tells of projects funded by both Endowments plus myriad other agencies like the Education Department or the National Science Foundation or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, each with its own application rituals, administrative costs, and review procedures, to the point where the government clearly has no idea how much it is spending on various cultural endeavors, let alone why.

As with all bureaucracies, the Endowments have come to serve primarily the bureaucrats themselves. When Biddle arrived at the Arts Endowment, Mooney reports, he promised more rapid turnover among the 15 NEA "program directors" (salary: $45,792 at that time). Of the six he got rid of to start, one became a "special consultant" to Biddle on "international" projects; one (former "expansion arts" director) signed on with Arts Media Services, Inc., a consultant supported by $100,000 from NEA; and one went to the Western States Arts Foundation, another NEA dependent. Biddle justified these boondoggles to a congressional committee by saying they'd been arranged "so that no one would be subject to hardships."

Though conferences and studies have been devoted to defining terms like "arts" "humanities," "literature," and so on, a natural law of government decrees that such definitions inevitably become broader as the years go on. Definition implies exclusion, and exclusion is next to impossible when there is a pile of money to be doled out in a democracy like ours. So the Humanities Endowment now sponsors summer resort seminars on ethics for journalists, and the Arts Endowment is heavily into folk crafts.

Criticism of the Endowments generally has taken the form of a debate over "politicization" versus "elitism." These are really just rival claims for funds. One group insists that applying traditional artistic standards and giving large grants to established cultural institutions is "elitist," and therefore wants the money spread around as thinly as possible. The other group argues that any political supervision of arts money is philistine, and wants the money concentrated in established centers of "excellence" like the major symphony orchestras. Both groups seem to have forgotten whose money it is, and neither seems concerned that it represents a transfer from the many to the few -- and, at least indirectly, from the less affluent to the more so. The "elitist" critics, especially, carry on as if the world owes them a repertory company.

Michael Mooney has spent years looking into all this, and what he sees is not a mess, or even a scandal, but a sinister conspiracy. The villain of the book is Joan Mondale, of all people, because in 1978 she revived something called the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities as an extra layer of bureaucracy above the two Endowments. Mooney believes this move turned the Endowments into agents of something he calls variously a National Culture or the New Order or sometimes just Humanism, which by any name is nothing less than the world of 1984, a novel he quotes at the head of eight chapters. Seriously. Mooney thinks the growth of the Arts and Humanities Endowments signals the tiumph of fascism. How he gets from here to there is something I don't quite follow. His book is full of passages like this:

"Absolution was granted in advance for all crimes, in those instances where good motives were blessed in advance. In achieving the objectives of moral unities, the arts were useful; so were the humanities; and Education, Defense, Agricultue, PBS, and the activities of any other department or agency. Their hegeonies were all to be part of a well-coordinated-national-culture. To the extent that all participants in the 'dialogue' of these collectivized activities agreed to every march taken toward the city of unity, all such believers participated in a permanent state of grace. Any objections to coordinated plans or operations, even if the objections were founded in obvious realities, were expressions of heresy, and treason. Hense, not one instance of censorship contradicted the goodwill, the collective altruism, of orthodox humanism. No citizen should believe that he lived merely for his own benefit; instead, everyone should learn how he contributed to the general welfare."

Got it? Not me, and I make my living deciphering other people's prose. The bizarre use of the past tense, which is standard throughout the book, must be intended to impart a Gibbonesque decline-and-fall quality. But beyond that, I'm stupid.

I'm also stumped by why Mooney has chosen to reproduce various documents, such as a list of Federal Trade Commission complaints against corporations and an advertisement for a nuclear engineer (stuck in a chapter about funding TV documentaries), and why he sometimes runs whole passages together without spaces, or connects strings of words with hyphens.

Because Mooney's method is a mystery to me, I'm reluctant to describe anything in this fat book as filler, such as the long chapter about the Progressive -Howard Morland case, or small notes like this one about the wife of the vice premier of China: "Washington Post reporter Jacqueline Trescott described Madame Cho as a small woman of ample build, with delicate facial features and pierced ears, although Madame Cho was not that day wearing any earrings." No earrings. Hmmm . . . . Huh?

Mooney describes in lengthy detail his campaign to get admitted to Humanities Endowment meetings, and efforts by Chairman Duffey and his lawyers (at much expense to the taxpayers) to keep Mooney out. This has the makings of a great comic set piece about government. But unless the satire is too subtle for me, Mooney apparently believes that NEH was not merely engaged in bureaucratic foolishness, but actually was protecting its secret plot to control society. Three Mile Island is somehow part of this plot, and so is President Carter's firing of Kennedy supporters last year, and so are powerful corporations (which Mooney calls "corpos") and burdensome government regulations. Oh what tangled webs we weave!

Maybe Mooney intends to trot this book down to Joe Duffey and apply for a lavish grant to fund a project on "DADA techniques in Modern Non-Fiction Literature." Otherwise, I have no explanation.