Time To Circle The Wagons

A senator attacks the Smithsonian's 'politics'

The senator was full of telegenic outrage. "You're in for a battle," Ted Stevens of Alaska warned the startled witness. "I'm going to get other people to help me make you make sense." Smithsonian Institution secretary Robert Mc.Adams protested that he was just trying to bring a little diversity to the museum by staging a revisionist exhibition called "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier." But Stevens, a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that controls the Smithsonian's funding, narrowed his eyes. "I think you've got a political agenda," he said.

Last year it was Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina railing against federally funded obscenity. This year the conservatives' new bogeyman is "political correctness" among liberal academics who hold, among other things, that Dead White Males (DWMs, in PC talk) are to blame for most of the world's ills. Stevens's attack on the Smithsonian, delivered last week at a congressional hearing, came a fortnight after President Bush inveighed against PC at the University of Michigan commencement. The attacks signal the discovery of what the political pros like to call a "wedge issue"-a rhetorical opportunity to rile up the voters.

To label the Smithsonian a hotbed of radicalism because it runs show like "The West as America" is a little like calling The Wall Street Journal a communist rag because it once ran a piece on Eugene Debs. The exhibit itself is typical of a wave of trendy modern scholarship about the Old West. It shows that the old, romanticized vision of the frontier "extolled progress but rarely noted damaging social and environmental change." The catalog copy is filled with PC jargon. It describes Irving Couse's "The Captive" (above) as "unconsciously" expressing the white culture's "fears of miscegenation" through a "network of intimations that thinly repress an actual sexual encounter." The artist, the catalog declares, has reduced the woman and the Indian to the status of "marginalized others."

Strong stuff, perhaps, for a museum that caters to busloads of tourists and school kids as well as serious art scholars. But the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art is also chock-full of old mainstays like James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. The museum's other special offering this month is "Tokens of Affection: The Portrait Miniature in America"-a collection of pendants featuring famous Americans like Abraham Lincoln.

Sounding a little like a witness before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950s ("Are you now, or have you ever been ... ?"), Adams protested, "I don't think the Smithsonian has any business, or ever had any business, developing a political agenda." But Stevens was not mollified. "To see that exhibit ... I'll tell you, that really set me off," he fumed. "Why should people come to your institution and see a history that's so perverted?" Stevens later conceded to NEWSWEEK that he had not actually seen the exhibit on the West. He had been alerted to a comment that former librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin entered in the museum's guest book. Boorstin wrote that the exhibit was "a perverse, historically inaccurate, destructive exhibit. No credit to the Smithsonian."

Stevens has reason to be touchy about attacks on environmental exploitation of the West. The senior senator from Alaska is a firm supporter of oil and mineral development back home. Stevens also criticized the Smithsonian for showing a documentary film called "Black Tide" about the Exxon Valdez disaster. (The film, made by the Discovery Channel, was shown at a free film series at the museum.) Stevens complained that the film "depicted the darkest days of the oil spill and it did not have any balance at all."

Stevens chastised the Smithsonian as well for its role in a still unfinished television series titled "The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes." The senator wanted to know why the Smithsonian had given its name, advice and $250,000 (in nonfederal funds) to a project that presents the views of a "noncitizen" and "a Marxist Mexican." Fuentes is a former Mexican diplomat, a well-known novelist and an ardent leftist who opposes much U.S. policy toward Latin America. Stevens demanded to know whether the television series accused America's founders of "genocide." Adams replied that he couldn't remember but assured Stevens that the series, part of a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, was "subject to a searing review from a whole panel of scholars."

Stevens's ire is not likely to deprive the Smithsonian of the roughly $300 million it receives each year in federal funds. But the PC debate will continue to reverberate across the political landscape. The yearlong preparations for Columbus's quincentenary will arouse ethnic sensitivities from Hudson Bay to Cape Horn. Not even the Smithsonian-the nation's attic-will be big enough to contain them all.