It was like this. The American Council for the Arts wanted a nice poll that would show how much the American people love the arts and want to support them. The council especially wanted a poll that would favor individual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
So the head honchos of the council got a grant from Philip Morris, and they retained pollster Lou Harris. At 71, Mr. Harris is old enough to be called the Venerable Lou. He knows a thing or two about polling. You bet he does. He knows that 99 percent of a public-opinion poll lies in framing the questions to be asked.
So the Venerable Lou took personal charge of this enterprise. He framed some hardball questions that would get to the very core of how people feel about the arts. In February his pollsters telephoned 1,500 adults and asked them:
''Do you ever find the arts give you an uplift from everyday experiences?'' By jingoes, 70 percent of the respondents said yes.
The Venerable Lou asked them, ''How important do you think it is to the quality of life in the community to have such things as museums, theater and concert halls in the community?'' That was a sockdolager. The respondents chewed on their pencils and thought. Forty-eight percent said very important; 36 percent said somewhat important.
After a series of 13 questions to soften folks up, and to get them thinking the arts are great, our peerless pollster stopped stalling around: ''If arts organizations, such as art museums, dance, opera, theater groups and symphony orchestras, need financial assistance to operate, do you feel that ( ) should provide assistance or not?''
Sixty percent knew the right answer. They shouted, ''The federal government should provide assistance!''
The Venerable Lou framed some wicked questions about individual artists. Did the respondents feel that artists ''work very hard for very little money?'' Yes, Lou! That's right, Lou! You got it right, man!
Are individual professional artists ''highly important to the life of the country as the current and potential creators of the art and culture that the nation needs to be a full and rich place to live?'' Said 81 percent: Yessiree bob!
''My name is Lou,'' said His Eminence. ''The federal government now pays out over $1,000 per capita for defense, $180 for education, and no more than $1.40 for the arts. Would you be willing to pay $25 more in taxes a year for the arts? $15 more? $10 more? $5 more?''
Here the unregenerate respondents, despite all the buttering up, spit in the old professor's eye. Not even half of them were willing to pay $25 more a year in taxes. Thirty percent said they were unwilling to pay even a lousy 5 bucks more in taxes to support the arts.
Recovering from this affront, Dr. Harris concluded with several questions that demanded serious thought: ''Do you agree that in order for the arts to come forth with their best and most creative efforts, the arts need to operate freely with a minimum of government control?'' Eighty percent said rah, rah, rah. Is a diversity of artistic expression desirable? Sure, Lou, said the pollees. They were getting restless.
And finally: ''Government can be helpful to artists in funding their work and in helping them gain recognition, but government must not dictate to the artist what the artist should create. Do you agree or disagree?'' Even with that loaded word ''dictate,'' Lou's question could coax a yes from only 75 percent.
The American Council for the Arts put out a happy press release. Behold! A decisive majority of the people firmly support federal government financing of the arts! Heavy majorities provide a clear-cut mandate ''that federal control of the substance of what the artists create should not be a condition of federal funding.''
I wonder what the response would have been if the Venerable Lou had asked: Do you agree or disagree that $20,000 of your hard-earned taxes should be spent to pay a fellow to translate a work by Ovid into elegiac couplets? Could this be postponed to a time when we are not running a $400 billion deficit? Yes or no?''
Well, the American Council for the Arts wanted a nice, unbiased poll. Say it for the Venerable Lou: He gave 'em their money's worth.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist