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Over at the Smithsonian, More Looting, of the Political Kind

Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

May 06, 2003|Patt Morrison

It's supposed to be a flawless spring day in Our Nation's Capital today -- dogwoods blooming, azaleas unfurling -- and if you can bear being indoors, there are some good places to go: to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, downstairs, to see pictures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or you can go to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, to see what the Smithsonian didn't put in its exhibit, which three U.S. senators have put on display to make sure you can.

One place you can't go in D.C. this morning is the Senate Rules Committee hearing on the oversight of operations at the Smithsonian.

It's been postponed. Its chairman, Mississippi's Trent Lott, is said to have discovered a scheduling conflict, but the rumors and murmurs that surge as regularly as tides through Washington guess it was done so that Lott's folks can get their ducks in a row about what happened over at the Smithsonian after Sen. Barbara Boxer held up a picture of a polar bear on the Senate floor.

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"Cast your eyes on this," Boxer told her colleagues, back in March. "I wish every member could have the chance to take a look at this beautiful book." And she held up the book, "Seasons of Life and Land," with polar bears and caribou and tundra flowers and scores of bird species -- this wildlife refuge that Interior Secretary Gale Norton described like a painted wall, as a "flat, white nothingness" -- and told the Senate that in May, 48 of the photographs would go on exhibit at the Smithsonian.

By day's end, the Senate had voted no to oil and gas drilling in the refuge, and Sen. Ted Stevens was mad. The Alaska Republican, who would probably allow an oil pipeline to be laid over his grave if it gave a job to one Alaskan, warned darkly, "People who vote against [drilling] today are voting against me and I will not forget it."

Then -- bada boom, bada bing -- six weeks later, the Smithsonian, which had planned at one point to put the exhibit on the main floor, off the Rotunda, opened it in a downstairs gallery.

It also shrank to one-liners the captions its staff had composed with the photographer. One, detailing the arduous Argentina-to-Arctic migration of the buff-breasted sandpiper, was reduced to "coastal plain and sandpiper." A remark from former President Jimmy Carter was removed altogether.

Now, in Washington, political cause-effect ranks with gravity as received truth, and when the congressional menu changes "French fries" to "freedom fries," there's no reason not to believe it.

So Washington did the math. Stevens wants drilling. The White House wants drilling. Stevens heads the Appropriations Committee, the Senate's checkbook. Congress gives the Smithsonian 70% of its budget. The only question being asked was, did the Smithsonian jump, or was it pushed?

Pushed, believes Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois: "This is an administration that puts drapes over topless statues at the Department of Justice and is afraid of putting captions on the buff-breasted sandpiper."

Boxer and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell wrote to the head of the museum: "To bow to political pressure -- to censor the works of a particular individual -- goes against the very purpose, mission and principles of the Smithsonian Institution.... This perception of political persecution from the Smithsonian Institution is unacceptable."

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Over at the Smithsonian, the PR guy is tearing his hair out. Perception? Where's the evidence of pressure, or of caving in? Where's the smoking e-mail? "No political pressure was brought to bear on the Smithsonian to make changes in this exhibition," declares Russell Kremer. What changes were made were done internally, for "effective presentation." And the exhibit was put downstairs because the lighting was better.

And yet: "We certainly didn't want to be brought into a debate over whether there should be drilling in ANWR," the wildlife refuge, Kremer says. "That's not something we want to be embroiled in." Boxer's comments "were just among many decisions taken into consideration" before the exhibit went up, he said.

But look. ANWR has been politicized since the Reagan administration wanted to drill oil there. George Bush I reassured America that the caribou will love drilling as they love the trans-Alaska pipeline. In perhaps the only time the administration went on record as pro-sex, he said of the caribou: "They're all making love lying up against the pipeline and you got thousands of caribou up there."

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