BootLeg Betty

BetteBack March 15, 1995: Stars Lobby For The NEA

The Washington Post
March 15, 1995 | Jacqueline Trescott

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The powerhouses of country music and politics spent a few minutes yesterday shooting the breeze on a sunny Capitol balcony.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich candidly admitted he doesn’t have any recordings by megastar Garth Brooks nor had he even been to one of Brooks’s concerts. But he described his wife as a devoted fan and he certainly recognized Brooks’s star power.

Brooks looked the part of a country icon; his beige ten-gallon hat tilted just so, he was dressed in blue Wranglers, an open-collar blue- striped shirt and speckled ostrich boots. He later said that he didn’t know what to expect, smiling gamely. The point was that he was getting 10 minutes out of the speaker’s crammed schedule to ask the politician who had called for privatization of the National Endowment for the Arts to continue its government funding.

But first, the photo op.

A star-led platoon of arts advocates swarmed over Capitol Hill yesterday to deliver the message of the arts’ importance in American life; to drop off telegrams from people back home and from other stars, like Bette Midler and Natalie Cole; and to read letters from school kids enthralled by museums. The result was a bonanza day for pocket cameras and the casual visitor who was combing the halls for Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and encountered Kenny G instead.

Among those entrusted with the message by a coalition of arts advocacy groups were, in adddition to saxophonist Kenny G, singer Michael Bolton and actor Christopher Reeve. They lined up right behind the lobbyists from the National Pest Control Association and the Parent Teachers Association and the teens on spring break.

There was Garth-gridlock every step of the way. There were squeals as Kenny G’s locks were recognized. And sighs from some middle-aged ladies from Georgia, who were waiting to see Gingrich when Bolton held a door open for them. Everyone called these celebrities by their first names. “Hey, Kenny,” said a guard who was supposed to be checking visitors’ bags.

After he emerged from his meeting with Gingrich, Brooks stood in the red-carpeted hallway, posing for individual pictures with 12 staff members. Explaining that he wasn’t sure how much he was supposed to say about a meeting with a congressman, Brooks said their talk had gone well: “He said a lot of cool things.”

Apparently, the speaker was more responsive to dialogue on the future of the NEA in his quick visit with Brooks than he has been with other lobbyists. “He doesn’t seem to be against NEA, but wants a say in how the money is spent,” said Brooks, who added: “He was very nice to me. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Brooks said he had tried strongly to disabuse the speaker of the notion that all who create or enjoy the arts are well heeled. And that became Brooks’s message of the day. “Ninety-nine percent of those who do arts don’t have money, don’t have the faces,” he said, pointing to his instantly recognizable one. “I think seriously the man wants to seriously do what’s right.”

At one point, the three musicians staged a well-planned ambush of a group of senators leaving a lunch. Most of the senators couldn’t have been happier. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) reached over a number of heads and grabbed Bolton’s hand. “Hi, Michael. Fred Thompson,” said Thompson. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) was proudly introducing Bolton as his constituent. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) was trying to get Brooks to a microphone. But Brooks had been stopped by a Capitol police officer, who was discreetly trying to give him one of the force’s arm patches. Then Brooks was posing for pictures with Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and trying to hear what Sen. Robert Bennett (R- Utah) was saying about rural areas being hurt by reductions in arts funding.

Then Brooks, Bolton and Kenny G finally stepped up to the mike. The saxophonist made a strong plea for funds for arts education, recalling how he had attended an NEA-funded program in Port Townsend, Wash. “It is just not a narrow group that benefits,” Kenny G said.

Earlier in the day, Reeve told 500 people at a breakfast with actor Tony Randall and Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, that they should fight to keep the NEA as it is now. “We have listened to the alternatives and return to the belief that the present system is the best. It will take a lot of courage and the expenditure of considerable political capital for some of our representatives to accept that and act upon it,” said Reeve. Just days ago at a Senate hearing, Reeve was advocating a different plan, but yesterday he said he had changed his mind.

By the end of the day, Bolton admitted he had gotten down some of the political parlance but didn’t envy the ritual of lobbying. “It is a lot harder to get anything done,” he said. “It’s harder than promoting a new album.”

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