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Jane Alexander's Audition for NEA : The arts: Conservative Senators are expected to support the actress, but questions remain about her stance on decency clause.

September 20, 1993|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Jesse Helms likes her.

While the National Endowment for the Arts has remained a tasty bone of contention for liberals and conservatives on Capitol Hill in recent years, somehow even those who love to hate the NEA are endorsing President Clinton's choice for the endowment's chairmanship: actress Jane Alexander.

Alexander's confirmation hearings for the post begin Wednesday morning--and sources at the NEA, on Capitol Hill and from Washington-based arts organizations agree that her confirmation will go through without dissent.

"I don't think there will be (any objection)," said Sandy Crary, assistant to Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee on education, arts and humanities, which will conduct the first and probably only hearing. "She has had a very supportive experience leading up to this; there is no known opposition."

Alexander has even united those two archconservatives from the Carolinas--longtime NEA foe Sen. Helms (R-N.C.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)--in her support. Both senators serve on the subcommittee chaired by Pell, which will vote Wednesday.

Last week on the Senate floor, Helms--who has charged the NEA with funding "obscene art"--introduced three bills that would hobble the endowment: one that would have prohibited aid to individual artists, and another that would have required that a larger percentage of NEA funds be sent to the states for distribution by local officials.

And, in a last-ditch effort that one NEA source described as "Draconian even for Helms," the senator made a proposal late Tuesday night that the endowment be abolished altogether. He was voted down in all three cases.

But even after trying to eliminate the agency, Helms spokesman Eric Lundgren confirmed that the senator likes Alexander and even praised her on the Senate floor. "He said . . . that he admired her as a talented and sensitive actress," Lundgren relayed. "Unless he learns something more about her than he already knows now, his intent is to support her . . . from what I heard on the Senate floor today, they all seemed to be happy about her instatement."

Although Thurmond could not be reached for comment, according to a Sept. 13 item in the Washington Post, Alexander--who has been making personal courtesy calls to members of Congress--made a good impression on the senator. A spokesman for Thurmond is quoted as saying Alexander was able to quell the senator's fears about the funding of controversial art, saying she would be "willing to work with him if the controversy kept up." Thurmond reportedly refused to say whether or not he would vote for Alexander.

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The full Senate vote is expected to take place by October, which has been designated National Arts and Humanities Month by the National Cultural Alliance. An NEA source said Clinton would probably want to have the new chief in place for an early October ceremony at the White House to honor the recipients of the Frankel Prize for the humanities and the President's Medal of the Arts.

Still an open question is how Alexander will address the issue of the Clinton Administration's decision to appeal the 1992 federal court ruling that the NEA's decency clause was unconstitutional. David Mendoza, executive director of the Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said his organization expects Alexander to be grilled on this issue during the hearing.

"I know that the effort (so far) has been for her to totally avoid the issue," Mendoza said. "(Sheldon) Hackney (the University of Pennsylvania president who is Clinton's nominee for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) said he didn't support the decency clause, but she is not saying anything in advance of the hearings.

"I think, from everything we know about her, that she wouldn't support such a limitation, but everything we know about her is previous to her having an official government role. And that does change things."

As Alexander approaches her confirmation, a relatively new anti-NEA voice is busily running around the Hill trying to persuade the President, the Senate and the House that the endowment should be abolished immediately.

In the latest in its series of attacks, the Virginia-based Christian Action Network, headed by Martin Mawyer, earlier this month distributed sexually explicit videos to President Clinton and members of Congress. The group charged that the NEA was indirectly involved in funding the videos, which were shown at the Pittsburgh International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1991. The NEA responded with a statement denying all charges.

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The network has also launched a fax attack on Alexander herself, flooding Capitol Hill offices and news outlets with press releases offering the opinion that Alexander has supported the radical left on some political and environmental issues. And, according to a spokesman, "We don't feel that someone we believe is beholden to the interests of Hollywood should be heading the NEA."

Jill Bond, director of the Artsave project of the People for the American Way Action Fund, an activist group that supports Alexander's appointment, said she believes most politicians are ignoring the Christian Action Network despite the insistent flood of paper.

"People like Mawyer aren't even going to get the time of day," Bond said. "At (the recent NEA Senate appropriation hearings) every single one of them was talking about how (the NEA) is going to turn around under Jane Alexander. It's interesting--she is not in office, but she is already beginning to have a major impact on elected officials' perception of the agency."

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