Salon.com Expose on Politicizing of the NEH

Roundup: Talking About History

Mary Jacoby, at Salon (Aug. 26, 2004):

... unelected and unappointed, Lynne Cheney is back in charge at the National Endowment for the Humanities, operating without that pesky "mandate from the voters" through handpicked surrogates in key positions. "It's pretty obvious that she's running the agency," William Ferris, a history professor who headed the NEH from 1997 to 2001, said of Cheney.

The endowment's chairman, Bruce Cole, a Renaissance art scholar from Indiana University, is a conservative ally of Cheney whom George H.W. Bush had appointed to the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory body that oversees grant-making for scholarly research, preservation, media and teaching projects at the $137 million agency. At Cole's swearing-in as chairman in December 2001, Cheney and her husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, showed up to clink glasses. The unusual high-level attention sent a message that was not lost on the endowment's staffers.

Moreover, two close Cheney friends have been installed in key positions at the agency. In charge of day-to-day operations is deputy director Lynne Munson, who was Cheney's special assistant at the NEH from 1990 through 1992 and later followed Cheney to her fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute. And Celeste Colgan, a member of the National Council on the Humanities, is a former Halliburton official and longtime Cheney family crony who was Cheney's deputy at the NEH from 1986 through 1992. Both women, according to many sources close to the endowment, are widely perceived to be responsible for an Orwellian atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that has descended over the agency, a Cheney family hallmark.

Though she has no formal standing in day-to-day management, Cheney's photograph is featured prominently on the agency's Web site, and she always seems to pop up at chairman Cole's side for important announcements. In 2002, when President Bush unveiled a special $10 million White House-backed education program on American history, "We the People," the first audience member he thanked in the Rose Garden ceremony was Lynne Cheney. The president did eventually acknowledge Bruce Cole as well, though he got his name wrong, calling him "Bob."

During her chairmanship of the agency from 1986 through 1992, Cheney was known for killing research projects deemed offensive to conservative orthodoxy, scribbling "not for me!" on proposals dealing with race, gender discrimination or the legacy of slavery. She considered the endowment so irredeemably left-wing that she campaigned to abolish it. But times have changed. Republicans control the White House and Congress. Democrats are cut out of the process. Now conservatives view the agency as a useful tool for propagating the kind of uplifting and generally uncritical version of American history they believe necessary for national greatness, as Cheney explained in a CNN interview last year: "American history that's taught in as positive and upbeat a way as our national story deserves."...

Once left for dead, its budget slashed nearly 40 percent during the Newt Gingrich "Republican revolution" of the mid-1990s, the NEH has seen its funding nudged upward during the Bush administration to $137 million. That's still considerably less than the $177.5 million the agency received in 1994, pre-Gingrich. The problem now is not what projects are being funded, because many worthy scholarly or educational pursuits are receiving support, though only if they meet conservative approval. The issue, rather, is what's not being funded, which viewpoints are being excluded, and what critical-thinking tools for students are being suppressed at a time when it is more important than ever to understand (and thus counteract) the dangerous global rise in hostility toward America.

Instead, at an agency meant to foster intellectual exploration and knowledge, NEH staffers' phone lines are being monitored to catch -- and punish -- anyone who dares take a call from a reporter, according to Angela Iovino, a former program officer at the agency who keeps in touch with her anxious former colleagues. In an apparently punitive move, the NEH inspector general opened an investigation of a former assistant chairman of the agency, a professor of French and Italian at Indiana University named Julia Bondanella, after she was quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article that exposed the return of Cheney-era "flagging" of proposals for rejection that don't adhere to conservative orthodoxy. Meanwhile, President Clinton's appointees to the National Council on the Humanities, the oversight board that plays a critical role in approving grants, have been marginalized to the point where one -- Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland, a prominent historian of slavery -- quit in anger.

The absurdity is that it is now easier for reporters to ring up officials at the Central Intelligence Agency to chat about Osama bin Laden than ask a staffer at the endowment why a project on, say, ethnic Chinese in Cuba didn't get funded. Many scholars, apparently fearful of jeopardizing chances for future funding, responded either with silence or with a nervous, clammy stuttering when I asked to interview them. "People are scared and intimidated," explained Ferris. "What's happening there now is completely contrary to the values the endowment is meant to promote." ...

... Cheney's loyal lieutenants -- Lynne Munson and Celeste Colgan -- were at her side [when she was head of NEH], absorbing the lessons that would guide them a decade later when they returned to the NEH as Cheney's surrogates.

Of the two, Munson is considered the most punitive, because she controls the day-to-day operations of the endowment. In the hallways, she has been overheard boasting loudly that she has spoken recently with Cheney. Unlike previous holders of the deputy's position, Munson lacks a Ph.D., an essential qualification whose absence, her detractors say, is evidence that pure politics is behind her assignment.

Colgan, 65, earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Maryland and has known Cheney for decades. From 1986 through 1992, Colgan was Cheney's deputy at the NEH. Later, she spent two years as director of the Wyoming state commerce department, then followed Dick Cheney to Halliburton, where she became vice president of administration. Colgan is widely viewed as Cheney's eyes and ears on the National Council. ...

"It was Lynne Munson who had all these harebrained ideas about peer review panels," said [retired NEH program officer Bruce] Robinson, who retired from the NEH in 2002. He said Munson began requiring program officers to submit their choices for peer review panels to her for approval, thus eliminating "wrong-thinking" people from the front lines of grant making. Other sources with knowledge of the process confirmed Robinson's account. NEH spokesman Lokkesmoe declined to comment.

At the same time, Clinton academic appointees to the National Council were removed from their areas of expertise, where they had once had influence over how to distribute NEH grant money. Instead, they were assigned to powerless, non-grant-making panels that oversee the backwater state humanities councils. Among the Clinton-era scholars who were disappeared in this manner were Maryland's Ira Berlin; University of Virginia history professor Edward L. Ayers; Susan F. Wiltshire, a classics professor at Vanderbilt University; Evelyn Edson, a history professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College; and Pedro Castillo, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Berlin, a prominent historian of Southern and African-American history, made no secret of his anguish, telling numerous colleagues of his anger, humiliation and intention to resign. But either too traumatized or too afraid to speak publicly about the experience, Berlin responded neither to phone messages left at his home and office nor to e-mails. In response to questions from Salon about Berlin's resignation, NEH spokesman Lokkesmoe released a heavily edited version of the historian's resignation letter highlighting bland pleasantries. "It pleases me much to have participated in its [NEH's] great work," Berlin wrote, according to the excerpt released by NEH....

[Editor: This article goes on to reveal the NEH's alleged harassment of a historian who wanted a grant to study Cuban history. The article notes that the NEH project,"We the People" has been praised by historians, though some worry that it is being used to promote patriotic history.)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Clare Lois Spark - 8/28/2004

The allegations of the author are so vague and lacking in specificity that I was not convinced that the charges are true.

Michael Green - 8/27/2004

All of this begs a simple question: why should anyone expect the anti-intellectual, unfree atmosphere that now exists in the federal government--and has since January 20, 2001--to be any different at the NEH, where the opportunities for thought control are clearly too good to pass up?