President Obama gave his State of the Union speech earlier this week, outlining an agenda the New York Times described as modest.
How things have changed. When he first took office back in 2009, Obama caused a great deal of excitement and soaring hopes, particularly among many artists and their supporters. I was on NPR that spring expressing my skepticism against Grammy Award-winning record producer Quincy Jones, who was then gushing about the new President creating an “Art Czar” or even a Department of Culture within the executive branch.
Nothing of the sort happened. Indeed, much to the disappointment of his backers, the president dithered for a long time before he finally nominated Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to be his new head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
There was hope that Landesman would shake things up at the agency and restore the practice of awarding grants to individual artists that had been discontinued in the 1990s.
When Landesman left the Endowment in December 2012, he had created a couple of new initiatives (and somehow provoked Congress into protecting some others he actually wanted to cancel), but the NEA’s budget was smaller than when he came aboard, and he never tried to restore those individual grants. Now a year later, President Obama still hasn’t nominated his successor.
The anticipation of how presidents will relate to the arts is often amusing. Broadly speaking, there’s an assumption that Democrats will help and Republicans hurt. (In terms of budgets, however, that doesn’t hold water.)
And it’s still JFK that has the reputation of being the best friend to the arts of any recent president, when it was his successor LBJ who signed the NEA into law and Richard Nixon who endorsed the first big expansion of its budget and its mission.
Nixon was also one of a handful of presidents who played a musical instrument, although it’s uncertain how much that influenced his attitude toward the NEA. Nixon played the piano and the violin, and to my knowledge is the only President who performed one of his own compositions in public, on the old Jack Parr television show back in 1963.
Harry Truman played the piano, and Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson both played the violin. Bill Clinton played the saxophone and even made the All-State band in high school.
Warren G. Harding also played in his high school band, and could play almost every instrument except the trombone. While a senator, he played the Sousaphone in a group called the Caledonia Silver Cornet Band. John Philip Sousa dedicated his “Keeping Step with the Union” march to Harding’s wife.
But not every president was so inclined. Ulysses S. Grant with his tin ear was perhaps at the other end of the spectrum. “I only know two tunes,” he once admitted. “One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn’t.”
I don’t know if Gerald Ford played an instrument, but he made one of the better comments about music I’ve heard from a president. “Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them,” he said. “The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music.”
There’s no question that when presidents engage in the arts — or even occasionally emphasize their importance — a good portion of the public pays attention. But it would require focused, constant support from the White House for the presidency to make a big difference in how seriously the public takes them.
Unfortunately, most administrations, including this one, offer the arts no more than passing attention.