O'GARA is a writer and television producer in Wyoming.
For the past few years, I've probably gotten more out of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities than anyone else in my state. I don't mean more concerts, theater or lectures on Wyoming history, though I've enjoyed plenty of that. I mean money.
That's not exactly a boast. It's great to be No. 1, but not No. 1 on the welfare rolls. That's the way some politicians and taxpayers view these endowments -- extravagant programs that dish fat grants to self-important artists who do unhygienic things to crucifixes.
Still, being on the arts-and-humanities dole gives me a kind of authority when I speak about the benefits these agencies offer to a state like Wyoming. I've seen the great effort the staff of our state's arts council puts into serving the public a diet of culture it would get no other way -- as well as nurturing the talents of artists and scholars. I know firsthand that this largesse is not as huge as some may think. With small grants from the CPB, the humanities council and others, a colleague and I produced more than 100 TV programs in four years. The shows covered everything from a fierce statewide debate over nuclear-waste disposal to polo-playing cowboys.
The few commercial stations in Wyoming aren't likely to produce programs like these. In the nation's least populous state, with a skimpy advertising base, they can't afford it. Yet we're a big state geographically, and public television is one way to get to know how our far-flung neighbors live and think.
That's not all. Government funds channeled through the arts council help bring visiting artists to isolated, wind-blown little schools with no full-time art teacher. The library in my town is packed when a historian, partly funded by the humanities council, relates the struggle among scholars over how to tell fairly the story of a battle near the Little Big Horn River in 1876. This is particularly interesting in a town abutting the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the audience may include the descendants of people who fought in that battle -- and not on Custer's side.
I nod in agreement with testimony before congressional committees (I catch it on National Public Radio) that these low-cost programs deliver terrific bang for the buck. I shake my head in disbelief when it's suggested that the private sector will take over their functions. In coffee-shop discussions I defend the hard work of these agencies. But there is another voice in my head saying these worthwhile programs should have their federal budget cut or trimmed.
Like many others in the arts and humanities, I have recently been bombarded with appeals from federally supported agencies asking me to fight for them in the congressional funding war. I dutifully write my elected representatives describing the good value these funds have provided in our state. From what I read and hear, so do many others: the independent-minded people who live in this region are willing to defend a government role where it feeds a genuine need.
But I'm ready to cut my federal rations, and here's why. We are never going to overcome the debt our children will have to repay if we don't examine every government program with a fierce and dispassionate eye. We cannot ask others -- senior citizens, the poor and veterans -- to give up some federal benefits if we don't give up some of our own. We'll never push back the special-interest lobbies that rabble-rouse each balkanized constituency if we don't agree to make sacrifices against our own special interests. This is the first step toward breaking the habit of profligacy. It's also a step toward becoming a national community again, sharing burdens and aspirations.
Some of my Democrat friends are shaking their heads as they read this. He's been duped by Jesse Helms conservatives, who aren't trying to balance the budget but want to muzzle the artists whose ideas violate their sense of propriety; he's being used by the Gingrich crowd to strip these "liberal" programs.
Maybe so. But the new congressional leadership talks about "zero-base" budgeting, a worthy concept that requires every spending decision to be justified. They talk about a line-item veto that would theoretically trim pork from big bills. And they've raised interesting questions about government's role in the arts that deserve to be answered.
I am aware that Congress's tax-cutting fervor so far lacks spending-cut courage. That congressional timidity is the work of polltakers, who tell legislators to stay away from social security and Medicare, and they do. But the questions the pollsters ask are shallow bait and no help in fathoming what people feel down deep.
Try appealing to our sense of responsibility and sacrifice, instead of thinly disguised greed. Don't give us teenage welfare mothers as scapegoats; help us become a community that shares its hardships. We've been driven into corners by the rhetoric of recent years, and most of us want to get out.
The test for Democrats is whether they can cast a cold eye on federal programs that have been, historically, untouchable. The term "entitlements" says a lot. For Gingrich and his colleagues, a little humility about his "revolution" is in order. They were not elected to storm the Bastille but to end the federal deficit spree.
Both parties will have to look beyond the next election, and start managing the government the way American families do when they sit around the kitchen table and figure out what they can and can't afford. I can do with less and I can even do without. It matters more to me to set the table for the next generation than to feast tonight. And I would hope that I'm not alone in my thinking. I should be joined by those senior citizens who take exception to the selfish pitch of the American Association of Retired Persons and by some of my rancher neighbors offering to pay more for the public lands they use. We don't want to be on the receiving end of political pandering -- to have the deficit increased by me-first pressure groups. Our children are watching. Together, we must let the politicians know.