- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

Bruce Cole, the Bush administration's pick to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a heavy hitter among art historians.
For starters, he chairs Indiana University's art department and has written 12 books on art history, including one on Titian, the 16th-century Italian painter. His "Art in the Western World," which went with a PBS series in the 1980s by the same name, was an effort to make art understandable to the general public.
So was his 1999 book, "The Informed Eye," on understanding the masterpieces of the art of Western civilization. Fittingly, Mr. Cole, 62, is in Italy for three weeks, boning up on his favorite topic Italian Renaissance art as well as teaching a summer course on the topic to Ohio University students. He has declined requests for interviews until after Senate confirmation hearings, which are yet to be scheduled.
Those who know the Midwesterner say he will bring a new heft to the position to be vacated Nov. 11 by William Ferris, 59, the Mississippi folklorist who has headed the NEH for almost four years. Mr. Cole also would serve a four-year term at an annual salary of $133,700.
"He's not going to regard Western culture as little more than a seed bed of racism, sexism and homophobia," says Brad Wilson, executive director of the National Association of Scholars. "These are attitudes that unfortunately are quite prominent in the humanities departments of today's colleges and universities, but that Bruce Cole will see as corrosive of true learning."
Mr. Cole is no stranger to the NEH, having served on the National Council for the Humanities, which sets NEH policy, from 1992 to 1999. He was appointed by Lynne V. Cheney, who chaired the NEH during the Reagan and Bush administrations. As the wife of the vice president, she is believed to have had a substantial say in Mr. Cole's selection. Her office has released a statement approving his nomination.
Like Mrs. Cheney, he has waged war on political correctness, going so far as to found an Association for Art History in 1995 along with Georgia art historian Andrew Ladis. The group was billed as an alternative to the more politically correct College Arts Association.
In 1999, when President Clinton was asked to give the annual Jefferson Lecture at the NEH a task usually reserved for scholars and an offer the White House turned down Mr. Cole called the selection "a dangerous politicizing of the endowment."
He added, "What were they thinking? It's reckless, because it opens up all the old charges of politicization of the agency."
A specialist in medieval and Renaissance Italian art, Mr. Cole earned his doctorate in the history of art from Bryn Mawr College in 1969. His research included a two-year fellowship at an art institute in Florence, Italy. He has taught at Indiana University since 1973.
If approved, he will arrive at an agency where things are looking up. Along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEH suffered huge budget cuts in the mid-1990s from conservative lawmakers unhappy with the liberal directions taken by both agencies. The NEH budget has crept up in recent years and the House voted last Thursday to give it another $3 million, for a total budget of $123 million.
That same day, the NEH celebrated its 35th anniversary with a gathering for about 200 people in a sixth-floor room at the Library of Congress. Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, who served on the NEH council in the 1970s, was the keynote speaker. Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, also put in an appearance. The affair was a goodbye party of sorts for Mr. Ferris, who had made his wishes known to the Bush administration that he would have liked to retain his job.
But Michael Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who met Mr. Cole while doing a research project at Indiana University at Bloomington, suggests the art professor is the more logical choice.
"He is a perfect NEH guy for this kind of administration because he is a traditional educator," Mr. Ledeen says. "He understands the importance of higher education and the importance of the humanities for a society like ours. He'll be supportive of the good things people are doing in the scholarly community in this country, and he will not reward fads, which is one of the problems the NEH can get into."
While polling IU college students, Mr. Ledeen found the professor received "rave reviews from his students, both liberal and conservative." He said that some of their comments were: "Bill Cole is a cool guy"; "He is a basketball fan"; "We share a passion for things Italian"; and "What's there not to like about him?"
Contacted in Florence, Mr. Cole estimated he has been to Italy about 50 times over the course of his career. He is married, with two grown children.
He is also a hard worker, says Lynne Munson, who was special assistant to Mrs. Cheney at the NEH.
"I was asked for my recommendations [by the Bush administration] and he was among mine," she says. "He was simply the most dedicated member of the national council at the time. He came to every meeting, was extremely thorough, read all the grant applications and was dedicated to the endowment. He was the very first art historian to serve on the council and he'd be the very first art historian to chair the endowment.
"Being on the national council is very good training for becoming chairman. There is a lot of work, you meet four times a year and you have to dig into these grants and understand them," she added.
If confirmed, Mr. Cole will have his job cut out for him, says Mr. Wilson of the National Association of Scholars.
"The NEH needs to reassert the primacy of high culture over and against popular culture," he says. "That is a distinction that has purposely been eroded during the chairmanships of William Ferris and Sheldon Hackney. Being a great democracy, this country is driven, as all democracies are, by the tastes and interests of the large majority. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult to maintain a serious interest in the cultural heritage of not only the United States, but of the West more generally.
"It's certainly true there is no longer a consensus in the academic community over what constitutes the humanities. I think Bruce Cole is aware of that fact and respects it and will likely be a pluralist as to where the funding goes," he said.
But the Indiana professor has his limits, Mr. Wilson says, which is why he founded the Association for Art History.
"That was Bruce's attempt to rescue his discipline from the trivialization and ideological obsessions that had begun to dominate it," he says. "I think that is important for what he'll bring to the endowment. Hopefully, he'll not use the endowment as an agent for those fads."

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