A Presidential Fear of Art

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Watching the recent Democratic and Republican presidential debates with their tightly choreographed structure and lack of spontaneity, I started to wonder: if I had the chance, what questions would I ask the candidates to steer them away from their scripted responses? For example, what interesting book have they read recently – and I mean novel, and not the latest presidential biography or memoir. Who is their favorite writer? Do you think that if any of them mention, let's say Hemingway or Faulkner, it might ruin their chances of being elected? And what about theater? What recent play, if any, have they seen? Isn't it strange that the media never reports about presidential candidates – or presidents themselves – attending an opera performance or, god forbid, a ballet?

There is a peculiar fear among American politicians of being perceived as cultural elitists, so even if some of them do enjoy going to the theater and museums, they keep it private, and their handlers and PR representatives are not necessarily eager to advertise it either. I do remember the good old days of the Evil Soviet Empire when heads of state, during official visits, were expected to attend a performance at the Bolshoi Theater accompanied by Kruschev or Brezhnev. Or, for that matter, do you recall a time when the crème de la crème of the Washington establishment would be invited to the Kennedy White House to enjoy a performance by legendary cellist Pablo Casals? When Barbara Walters sat down with George and Barbara Bush in the living quarters of the White House for a rather informal interview, she asked them what they liked to do to unwind at the end of a long day. "Oh Barbara," the president said, "sometimes we kick off the shoes, sit on this very couch, and watch a video tape of an opera performance." You should have seen the First Lady react to that statement. In an attempt at damage control, she jumped in to reassure the American public, "But Barbara, we also love listening to Country & Western music."

During Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, the reports from Arkansas mentioned Bill and Hillary's occasional weekend visits to local art galleries and even buying a few artworks there. They also liked to tell stories about how, during their courtship, they would go to exhibitions to look at paintings by Mark Rothko or sit in the large lap of a sculpture by Henry Moore in the museum courtyard, talking until dark. You might expect that as President, this former Rhodes Scholar, a man known for his insatiable curiosity, would continue occasionally to visit museums – at least the nearby National Gallery. However, upon election, Clinton, like most recent American presidents, adopted the policy of keeping a safe distance from the high end of Art and Culture, which in contemporary political discourse, is stigmatized and simply not macho enough.

I find it difficult to understand this fear of the arts in this country, where most of the people claim to be religious. After all, the spirit of a nation, its hopes and inspirations, are best reflected in the works of its poets, artists, writers, and musicians. Why don't we ask presidential candidates about their knowledge and experience of art and culture? Is it normal to spend all these years in the nation's capitol without ever going to any museum on the Washington Mall? Why does Vladimir Putin like to invite his guests to stroll with him through the Hermitage? In your wildest dream, can you imagine George W. Bush taking a foreign counterpart on a tour of the National Gallery?