WASHINGTON — Nancy Reagan had Halston. Hillary Clinton had health care. For Laura Bush, it could well be the arts.
Quietly, the word has been spreading among entertainment and arts circles that the Lone Star teacher and librarian is devoted to the arts, personally as well as publicly.
As first lady of Texas, Laura Bush founded the wildly successful Texas Book Festival. She turned the state capitol into a gallery for Texas artists, organizing more than 22 exhibits. Texas still ranks among the worst in the nation in terms of arts funding, but funding did increase during George W. Bush’s tenure as governor.
An avid reader, Laura Bush’s favorite book is Dostoyevski’s “The Brothers Karamozov.” She’s known to remind people that literature is an art form, not just pulp fiction.
Laura Bush even told ABC’s Cokie Roberts in December that she supports the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), ticking off the Christian right. She has helped raise money for the Texas Arts Commission, which funds many of the same groups the NEA does.
It may be too soon to declare the new first lady a protector of pop culture and defender of Hollywood, but she could prove to be a check on the culture warriors coming into power with the George W. Bush presidency.
Chief among such warriors is Lynne Cheney, wife of VP Dick Cheney, who tried to gut the National Endowment for the Humanities while serving as NEH chair. She has long complained that the government funds left-wing subversives.
Earlier this month, the Bush team announced that Lynne Cheney was returning to her job at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C. think-tank.
“I think it’s a good sign that Laura Bush has publicly said she supports the NEA,” says Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti. “And if you are a great admirer of the written word, then you are a great admirer of the First Amendment.”
Americans for the Arts prexy-CEO Bob Lynch says he is cautiously optimistic about the Dubya presidency, thanks in large part to the buzz he is hearing about Laura Bush. His org is a leading arts advocacy group.
“The first lady can have a huge influence. The office gives her clout, and if she wants the arts issue, it’s hers, and not Lynne Cheney’s,” Lynch says.
The big question: Just how open-minded is Laura Bush?
On Jan. 19, she threw her one inaugural bash, an event celebrating American authors, many of whom were minorities, including black essayist Stanley Crouch. A number of children’s authors were there as well, such as Jack Gantos, who penned “Desire Lines,” a book about a Florida teenager who outs a young lesbian couple and then watches as one kills the other before turning the gun on herself.
“She does consider literature to be an art form. She’s adamant about this,” says Texas Commission on the Arts marketing director Gaye McElwain.
Laura Bush isn’t the only new face in the Bush administration giving arts and entertainment orgs a glimmer of hope.
Bush’s appointment to head the Dept. of Education, Houston superintendent of schools Rod Paige, has been a strong proponent of arts education. Tommy Thompson, Bush’s pick to head the Dept. of Health and Human Services, became a proponent of arts funding during his tenure as Wisconsin governor.
Secretary of State nominee Colin Powell’s wife, Alma, sits on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and is an active trustee, helping to organize the center’s 25th anniversary and a children’s multicultural book festival.
Bush’s choice to head the Dept. of Transportation, current Commerce secretary Norman Mineta, has been involved with Wolf Trap, a suburban Virginia performing arts venue.
The Bush presidency comes at a critical time for the arts and for the entertainment world. The Christian right would like nothing better than to gut the NEA, and many in Congress, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D.Conn.), have been critical of Hollywood and its alleged culture of violence and debauchery.
Hollywood bashing is nothing new, but it remains to be seen whether key members of the incoming administration — starting with Laura Bush — will jump on that bandwagon or steer the bandwagon out of sight.