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By Thane Peterson The nation's First Lady has been awfully quiet since early February, when she canceled a scheduled White House poetry symposium because it showed signs of taking on a strong antiwar tone. That's a shame. I'd say the country could use Laura Bush's steady and informed voice now on a host of cultural issues -- most urgently on the sacking of Baghdad's museums and national archives.
It's too late to save Iraq's archives, which were torched, but many of the artifacts that were plundered could be recovered if the Administration moves quickly. Pressure must be applied on allied governments to clamp down on unscrupulous antiquities dealers so the treasures will be harder to fence. No bounties should be offered outside Iraq because that would simply encourage professional art thieves to steal more in the future. But, within Iraq, an amnesty period accompanied by small rewards might lead to the recovery of the pieces that were taken in random looting -- or perhaps not random at all (see BW Online, 4/17/03, "Were Baghdad's Antiquity Thieves Ready?").
Another cause in desperate need of attention is one dear to the First Lady's heart: America's public libraries. As budgets are squeezed and the economy continues to lag, libraries around the country are shortening their hours and cutting back on staff. For instance, Binghamton, N.Y., not far from where I live, has had to close all four of its branch locations for lack of funding. Only the main library remains open. Many of the nation's museums will also to have to shorten their hours if the economy doesn't pick up soon.
ODE MAN OUT. Mrs. Bush seems to have adopted a low profile after taking a lot of flak for canceling -- technically, postponing -- the American Poetry Symposium she had planned for Feb. 12. She is said to have become alarmed when Sam Hamill, a poet and founder of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., who had been invited to the symposium, began an Internet campaign to gather antiwar poems to present to the First Lady. Hamill later held a national poets-against-the-war event.
I tend to agree with critics that the First Lady probably should have gone ahead with the planned symposium. But lost in the hubbub is the extraordinary quality of the discussion Mrs. Bush was organizing. It was far from the usual empty White House showcase peopled by lapdog literati guaranteed not to offend the host.
While the rest of the Bush Administration has contributed to the continuing dumbing-down of American politics (as if it could get any dumber), the First Lady had planned to honor three great American poets -- Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes. The fact that Hamill, whose leftist and antiwar political views are well known, was invited testifies to the diversity of the guest list, which was personally chosen by Laura Bush.
TASTE FOR THE CLASSICS. The First Lady undoubtedly is the most literate person in President Bush's inner circle. Those who snicker "that isn't saying much," may not realize she's one of the most literate people associated with any White House in decades. Jackie Kennedy seems like a dilettante by comparison.
Laura Bush may lack the Kennedy panache, but she has spent her life plunging passionately -- and privately -- into American and world literature. A former librarian and fourth-grade teacher, she's only the second First Lady with an advanced degree -- a master's of library science. (Hillary Clinton, with her Yale law degree, was the first.) And while President Bush's favorite book -- other than the Bible -- is a decidedly unliterary biography of the Texas hero Sam Houston, Laura Bush reads literary classics. She has said her all-time favorite is Fyodor Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov.
Anyone who doubts Mrs. Bush's passion for literature could listen to an interview she did two years ago with Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio. Stamberg asks her to read a few lines, and the First Lady thumbs through a well-worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov held together with a rubber band. As she reads and they talk, it's quite clear she knows the dense and difficult 80-page Grand Inquisitor section of the novel and its surrounding chapters almost by heart. You get the impression she would just as soon dispense with the small talk and keep on reading. I doubt that many literature professors know it as well.
TEXAS-SIZE SURPRISE. Attendees at previous White House literary salons have said they were astonished by the intelligence of the programs the First Lady organized. She was unobtrusively bringing together everyone from conservative columnist George Will to gays, lesbians, and leftist black historians to discuss literature. And the variety of the guest's political views was a result of open-mindedness on the First Lady's part, not naive stumbling.
For instance, when the First Lady asked Patricia Nelson Limerick, a revisionist historian of the American West, to include the Edna Ferber novel Giant in her discussion, Limerick assumed Mrs. Bush didn't realize what a caustic view the novel took of Texas oilmen. But when the First Lady, a native of Midland, Tex., kicked off the discussion with a reference to Ferber's shock at "the swaggering arrogance of the men in 10-gallon hats," it became clear that she not only knew the book but knew it quite well. The New York Times, among others who are no fans of the Bush White House, praised Mrs. Bush in an editorial for "the admirably penetrating" tenor of the seminars.
I hope Laura Bush will speak out a little more often now, both publicly and privately, on cultural issues. On his own, the President seems unlikely to give high culture much thought. But the First Lady's influence over him when she chooses to put her foot down is legend. She is said to have ended his drinking days with the blunt declaration: "It's Jim Beam or me." I have to think that a few forceful words from her to the President or members of his Administration would carry a lot of weight.
So, my message to the First Lady is this: Pick a cultural issue -- or two or three if you like. And then really get behind your cause during these hard times. No one else in the Administration cares as deeply as you do. And my guess is that the President will listen to you more closely than he would to anyone else. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online