'Arts warrior' looks back at battlefield

May 12, 1993|By Helen L. Kohen | Helen L. Kohen,Knight-Ridder News Service

It is typical of John Frohnmayer, who has a degree in Christian ethics, that this chronicle of his misadventures as the fifth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts raises a moral question.

Can a man who means no harm do any good?

Apparently not. President Clinton's overdue replacement of the NEA chairman whom George Bush hired in July 1989 and fired in February 1992 indicates that the ineffectual Mr. Frohnmayer did damage the agency. Lurching from "fumble" to "flip-flop" when he should have been aggressively defusing the issues of obscenity, irreverence and irrelevance raised by Endowment critics, Mr. Frohnmayer left behind an NEA suspected of something ignoble. Who can be trusted with this still-hot potato?

That Mr. Frohnmayer didn't mean to leave the agency less than he found it is the one thing this book makes perfectly clear. It's clear, too, that the Bush White House had little respect for the Endowment. Mr. Frohnmayer recites chapter and verse on that point, telling how the administration used the Endowment as a dumping ground for political appointees and how some of those turned out to be White House spies.

He names John H. Sununu, Mr. Bush's one-time chief of staff, as a prime saboteur -- a charge that Mr. Sununu has denied. He declares that Ann Radice, who took over his responsibilities until Clinton's election, was placed at NEA to undermine his position and take it over.

Still, though it may be possible that Mr. Frohnmayer was as naiveas he claims to have been when he came to Washington, it is hard to believe that he is that naive now. Yet, even as he takes us through this sorrowful, picaresque tale, we wonder whether he has processed the information he's recording.

Could he really have been the victim of so much perfidy, the unarmed innocent targeted by so great a variety of factions as the White House elite, the religious right, the Congress, the media, the National Association of Artists' Organization and PEN? A case of so many enemies, so little time? It's unlikely.

Mr. Frohnmayer deludes himself, refusing to recognize his own ambition. He accuses the Bush administration of wanting to keep the Endowment uncontroversial, but that was his goal, too: settle everything down as quickly as possible and get on with becoming a greatly beloved Art Czar, brilliantly fulfilling the mission of the NEA to develop an arts promotion policy for America and to respond to the grant requests of the country's artists.

The battles that marked his tenure, including the campaign waged by Sen. Jesse Helms and the Rev. Donald Wildmon to impose content restrictions on NEA-funded projects interfered. Mr. Frohnmayer actually believed the brouhaha over the homoerotic images by the late Robert Mapplethorpe and the perceived anti-Christian stance of photographer Andres Serrano would dissipate by the time his appointment was confirmed.

Getting the Endowment through the reauthorization process interfered, too. And there were all those other forces testing him as well -- the late Joseph Papp calling him a censor, "out-Helmsing Helms," and the press ever ready for another of its journalistic juice jobs."

So -- Mr. Frohnmayer's version goes -- with all these struggles raging, the chairman was never able to put his ideas to work. He was so distracted that his marriage faltered, his kids suffered. He never had any fun.

Mr. Frohnmayer, an educated man, a decorated Navy officer, an accomplished singer and a successful Oregon lawyer, now practices law in Washington, D.C. (Yes, despite the name of this book, he never left town.) He did one good thing at the NEA, formulating programs to make it a force in public education: The NEA peer-panel skills in identifying talent in the arts will be applied in the schools to other disciplines -- science, mathematics, athletics.

Otherwise, his was a sorry regime, a high time for visibility of the wrong sort, a bad time for art. His weaknesses and misplaced ambitions had a lot to do with that, a fact this book does little to hide. No matter how well he expresses his advocacy for the arts -- and Mr. Frohnmayer is a good wordsmith -- he spent his NEA years trying not to be noticed for the wrong reasons.

That's a role doomed from the start.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior."

Author: John Frohnmayer.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin.

Length, price: 360 pages, $22.95.

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