(A slightly different version of this post appears today at Big Hollywood.)
I believe I might have mentioned that Andrew Breitbart signaled that his next news drop would relate to the NEA.
And it does. But it involves so much more.
Today’s revelation is the extensive proof that shows the White House used the National Endowment for the Arts to push a political agenda favorable to President Obama. But it gets worse: the Administration lied about it, and tried to cover it up.
You already know the background: an NEA spokesman participated in a conference call designed to encourage artists to further Obama’s legislative agenda. This was revealed back in August at Big Hollywood. What is new today is the full transcript of the call — and how clearly the NEA was involved in urging artists to propagandize for Obama.
Naturally, the NEA and the Obama administration denied this. According to the Los Angeles Times (in a blog post, of course, and not an actual newsprint story), the NEA denied any purpose to further a legislative agenda:
The NEA issued a statement saying that it took part in the conference to help inform arts organizations about opportunities to sponsor volunteer service projects themselves, or have their members take part in other volunteer efforts. “This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda, and any suggestions to that end are simply false,” the statement said.
The White House similarly denied any desire to further a legislative agenda:
Responding by e-mail Wednesday, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the Aug. 10 teleconference “was not meant to promote any legislative agenda — it was a discussion on the United We Serve effort and how all Americans can participate.”
If Big Media had been paying attention, it could have demonstrated these denials to be rank lies. But Big Media fell asleep, leaving isolated organs of conservative media to pick up the ball and run it down the field. So, now, today, the full transcript is revealed, showing how badly Big Media missed the story.
The newly revealed full transcript of the call clearly demonstrates that the NEA participated in an unseemly (and possibly illegal) effort to influence artists to propagandize on behalf of the president’s political agenda. Let’s look at some aspects of the call that make it clear that, as Patrick Courrielche says with admirable restraint: “The NEA and the White House did encourage a handpicked, pro-Obama arts group to address issues under contentious national debate.”
One of the first speakers on the call was Michael Skolnik, the “political director” for Def-Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. Skolnik made it quite clear that the artists were gathered together because of their support for Obama’s agenda. Skolnik said that he had been “asked by folks in the White House and folks in the NEA” to “help bring together the independent artists community around the country.” He told the callers that “the goal of all this and the goal of this phone call” included the effort “to support some of the president’s initiatives” and “to push the president and push his administration.”
The Obama Hope poster
Skolnik cited the famous Obama Hope poster as “a great example” of “the role that we played during the campaign for the president.” He told callers that “the president has a clear arts agenda” and that “all of us who are on this phone call were selected for a reason” — namely, “you are the ones that lead by example in your communities. You are the thought leaders. You are the ones that . . . tell our country and our young people sort of what to do and what to be into; and what’s cool and what’s not cool.” (A fuller version of Skolnik’s quotes is set forth here for context.)
A bit later in the call, Buffy Wicks spoke up. Wicks is the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and served as the head of Obama’s Missouri campaign, and also as the campaign’s California Field Director.
Far from taking issue with Skolnik’s highly politicized description of the purpose of the call, Wicks added to it. Like Skolnik, Wicks indicated that she was talking to a hand-picked group of Obama-supporting artists. She told the assembled listeners that she has “really just a deep, deep appreciation for all the work that you all put into the campaign for the two plus years that we all worked together.” She said: “we won and that’s exciting, and now we have to take all that energy and make it really meaningful.” Why, I feel certain that she is not talking about promoting any legislative agenda, don’t you?
Wicks said that “change doesn’t come easy, but then now that I’m actually in the White House and working towards furthering this agenda, this very aggressive agenda” she realized that there is a need to “engage people at a local level and to engage them in the process.” Towards that end, she told the artists, “we need you, and we’re going to need your help, and we’re going to come at you with some specific asks here.”
In discussing the “specific asks” she veered deeply into policy. Wicks identified four main areas where people can engage in “service.” Two of them seem relatively innocuous: education and community renewal. But the first two she mentioned are clearly two of Obama’s biggest hot-button issues: health care and “energy and environment” (as in cap and trade). Speaking of “context,” Courrielche reminds us that the “context” surrounding this call was that it took place in early August — at a time when Congress was headed into a recess, and it appeared that the Obama administration was losing the debate on health care.
Wicks discussed so much policy with the artists that she even felt the need to apologize:
I know I’m throwing a lot of government stuff at you guys, so bear with me. It’s the world we live in now. We’re actually running the government.
What does this have to do with art?
Wicks discussed how the administration sees “service” as a “platform” by which the administration can take “folks who have just been engaged in electoral politics” and “engage them in really the process of governing.” The “service” certainly sounded like obeisance to leftist causes; Wicks described how she wants folks “to connect with federal agencies, with labor unions, progressive groups, face groups, women’s groups, you name it.” Yes, you name it! As long as it’s a leftist group, it can be part of “service”!
Finally, we get to the comments of Yosi Sergant, the (former) Director of Communications for the National Endowment for the Arts. (Sergant was later reassigned after Glenn Beck played portions of the phone call on his TV show. Sergant is still with the NEA in some other capacity.)
Like Wicks and Skolnik, Sergant saw the call participants as Obama supporters. He says that the call itself is
reflective of all the hard work that went down during the campaign, all the time and energy that each and every one of you put in, myself included, it’s paying off.
This is what we fought for. We fought for a chance to be at the table and not only at the table but we’re setting the table.
He said more than once that “this is a community that knows how to make a stink.” The NEA official then virtually ordered the presumably willing participants to create art that would support the president’s views on the policy areas previously identified by Wicks:
We are participating in history as it’s being made. So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely and we can really work together to move the needle and to get stuff done. Pick — I would encourage you to pick something whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service.
My ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative communities’ utilities and bring them to the table.
I guess it worked. As Big Hollywood has previously reported:
Within 48 hours of this phone call, 21 arts organizations endorsed President Obama’s health-care reform plan. Within days, Rock the Vote started an all out blitz that included a “health care design contest.”
In perhaps the most fascinating exchange, a caller named Liz Ban asked:
I think for the people that are on the inside of government to talk for a minute about Organizing For America and the differences between Organizing For America and Serve.gov and what we can do to help on critical advocacy issues like health care reform, cap and trade policy, if that should help move policies through the government, because this is a really important role that our creative community can also play.
That question is answered by Nell Abernathy, the director of outreach for United We Serve, a federal agency run through the Corporation for National and Community Service (this is apparently the “corporation” to which Sergant referred). As you read Abernathy’s words, you can easily picture the wink and the nod as she explains that the federal agencies can’t explicitly advocate specific policy changes:
Yeah, I can address that a little bit, and the reason only a little bit is largely because in my role at a federal agency, I’m precluded from going too far down the specific steps what people can do to advocate. But we have to, for these legal reasons, remain really separate what we do here from what OFA is doing, and so they’re basically two separate goals with the same idea. We use the same techniques, organizing strategies, because basically they’re both run by people from the campaign. But Serve.gov and the United We Serve initiative is based on the direct service addressing needs through volunteering today bipartisan support ideas than OFA, which is obviously advocating for policy change on these specific issues.
Got that? It’s “two separate goals with the same idea” and “both run by people for the campaign” but [wink wink] we can’t advocate policy change because [wink wink] we’re a federal agency.
Luckily, Mr. Skolnik jumps in to cut through the bullshit, which he’s allowed to do because he doesn’t work for the government:
Well, I can speak on that because fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t work for the government. This is Michael, again, but I can speak a little bit on that, and then I’ll wrap this up.
I think that’s a good point, Liz. Organizing For America, which was created after the campaign which now houses, as we said, in the Democratic party and is run by Mitch Stewart, who is part of the campaign, he’s the executive director, it is what the Democratic party has created to help advocate on behalf of the president, on behalf of the president’s policies to get them passed in government.
So what I had hoped in bringing this group together with the great hosts, which again, I want to thank for reaching out to their communities was that we could begin to bring together our community in the same enthusiasm, with the same enthusiasm and with the same energy that we all saw in each other during the campaign, and we could continue to work together on issues as important as United We Serve and Service and begin here and continue to work together on other issues that we feel are important, as we mentioned some of them, health care and others . . .
Whoops! United We Serve is the federal agency that Ms. Abernathy had just said [wink wink] had to remain separate from policy, and here is Skolnik mushing the two together.
Why This Story Is Important
It would be a mistake to dismiss this story as unimportant because there is no jaw-dropping angle like ACORN staffers’ apparent complicity in trafficking in under-age children for prostitution. Consider what is happening: the NEA is encouraging artists to create propaganda for a president’s policy initiatives. This is a corrosive precedent — and what’s more, it illustrates the overarching danger of the Obama administration: government, by increasingly taking over various aspects of American society, threatens to bend society to the will of a single man.
It would also be a mistake to dismiss the story as old just because the basic contours of the story were revealed in August. Since then, the NEA and the Obama administration have denied pursuing a legislative agenda in the call; today it is clear that they lied. What’s more, they tried to cover it up with the reassignment of Sergant. And the media played right along, for the most part acting as though that was the end of it.
Breitbart here is doing the same thing he did with ACORN: giving the national media good reason to investigate a story, sitting back and waiting — and then, once the media has proved itself inadequate to the task, providing the goods that show why the story was important all along.
The most obviously interesting question in all this going forward is whether laws were broken with this call.
Regardless of the answer to that question, this is an important story with implications that go beyond the NEA. Here’s the bottom line. Before today, Obama took over car companies and used his power over those companies to further his agenda of producing cars he believed consumers should own. Today, he increases government power over artists, to harness their creative powers to the “service” of his political agenda. What will come tomorrow, when Our Leader takes over health care, new industries, or God knows what else?