Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Leach should be confirmed as NEH chairman

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 7, 2009)

Ever since Republican Jim Leach publicly announced his support for Barack Obama's presidential candidacy last year, rumors have been circulating about what role the Iowa City area's former Congressman would play in the new administration.

Since losing re-election to Dave Loebsack in 2006, Leach has taught at Princeton University and worked as interim director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before last year's Democratic National Convention, the rumors of possible offices for him reached as high as vice president. After Obama's election, the possibilities included secretary of state and, most recently, ambassador to China.

We don't know whether Leach was actually on the short list for any of those positions. His most high-profile role in the new administration came shortly after the election, when the then president-elect tapped Leach -- along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- to represent the incoming administration at an international economic summit. (And Leach's prospects surely weren't helped by the fact that his name is on a 1999 law that allowed financial institutions to act as both investment banks and commercial banks -- the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act.)

But the rumor-mongering stopped Wednesday when Obama nominated Leach to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- the independent agency that awards grants for humanities projects.

"I had not intended to return to government and had in fact declined several early offers," Leach said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "But the humanities are such an extraordinary field, and my sense is there's never been a more important time to work in this area."

The position -- though not as lofty as the earlier rumored possibilities -- seems an ideal fit for a man who has been heralded throughout his public career for his attention to and appreciation of scholarship, scholasticism and academia.

Christopher Rossi, director of Humanities Iowa, said he was optimistic about Leach's appointment. If confirmed, Rossi said, Leach's long-established good relations with Congress -- the principal funder of the NEH through the Department of the Interior -- would be a strong asset for the endowment, especially during the current financial downturn. About 40 percent of NEH funding gets filtered through state humanities councils like Humanities Iowa.

"The high water mark for funding was achieved in 1994, when the NEH received $177 million," Rossi said. "After some attacks against the NEH and the (National Endowment for the Arts) in the 1990s, funding was cut dramatically and hasn't yet been restored to that 1994 level ... and that's not even counting inflation."

If confirmed, Leach's biggest challenge will be to overcome a public and a Congress that sometimes views the NEH as being too dowdy, too traditional or too out of touch with public sentiments. Rossi joked that far too many people think the endowment only funds projects as preposterously dry as "yet another bound edition of the works of Millard Fillmore."

Although Leach himself has sometimes been described as being a little too dowdy or too scholastic for public office, his résumé shows that he clearly understands the importance of academia, scholarship and public education.

"At this point in his career," Rossi said, "I don't think he's disposed to do anything just to fluff up his pedigree. I assume he's (accepted the nomination) because he thinks there are challenges out there to be met and that he's the right person with the right temperament to do them. ... I think he'll do just fine."

We can't imagine the U.S. Senate would find any credible reason against confirming Leach's nomination to the NEH. And we look forward to seeing how the former Congressman puts his personal stamp on this very important organization.

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