A lady fond of dead white males

October 27, 1994

If the Republicans have an answer to Hillary Clinton, it is Lynne Cheney. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Bush regime, she stirred up concerns about political correctness on college campuses, infuriating liberal academics by rejecting grants for research projects she considered biased and trying to ensure her political allies were appointed to the NEH, a grant-making body akin to the Arts Council. The traditional education establishment saw her as a right-wing ideologue; conservatives cheered her on.

So where is Mrs Cheney today? Hard at work in an office at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in downtown Washington, writing a book which will drive the higher education world wild again.

It is "about the status of truth in our times," says Mrs Cheney, wife of Dick, Bush's defence secretary during the Gulf war.

Sitting in Dick's office he too has been given a safe haven at the institute she explains her thesis. Higher education, she argues, has given up its search for the truth in favour of the political transformation of students and society. "The whole question of whether there is such a thing as truth is behind political correctness," she says.

Many academics, particularly in the English and history departments, and in the "soft" social sciences, regard truth as a cultural construct, she argues. It empowers some and oppresses others. Because professors see the truth as relative, they feel perfectly justified in using the classroom to advance their political views. So debate is closed off, universities feel justified in drawing up "speech codes", prescribing what can be said on campus, and the curriculum becomes increasingly fragmented, with students able to choose from almost 900 courses, from the history of foreign labour movements to the analysis of daytime soap operas, as Mrs Cheney explained in one of her pamphlets.

One of her big beefs is that students are no longer being grounded in the western tradition. They are no longer required to read European novelists and thinkers, the dead, white males on whom so much of western culture is founded. "The key questions are thought to be about gender, race, and class," she wrote in an NEH pamphlet on the humanities which created the biggest storm of all her pamphlets. "What groups did the authors of these works represent? How did their books enhance the social power of those groups over others?" Like Hillary Clinton, Mrs Cheney is sharp-witted, articulate and combative, and her opponents take her very seriously. How important was her contribution to the great debate on political correctness/culture wars on campus in the early 1990s?

"She was very important," says Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, who had a number of brushes with her. "She's a very bright person and extremely attractive when she wants to be. She charmed people like Ted Kennedy. She was very good at sweet-talking. She was terrific with the press and she was ruthless."

But for all his criticism, Katz says he probably agrees with 80 per cent of what Mrs Cheney has to say. "She's not entirely wrong about anything," he explains. "She's just so extreme about it." Everyone knows that there are, for example, feminists or black academics who use feminism or gender or skin colour to exclude others from debate. Katz finds this, at best, unfortunate and, at worse, appalling. "But Mrs Cheney wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater," he says. "Feminists, for example, have brought an extraordinary amount of truth to scholarly inquiry. Feminist scholarship in history has revealed to us much about the dynamics of history that we didn't know before."

Mrs Cheney, now 53, must have learnt all she needed to know about being charming as a schoolgirl in Caspar, Wyoming, where she grew up. That was in the 1950s when girls wore circular skirts and were intensely feminine. Lynne Vincent, as she was then, was high school Homecoming Queen (she reigned over the big football match of the season) and a baton twirler. Dick Cheney was captain of the high school football team. She was, and is, very pretty, a blue-eyed blonde, with a hesitant manner. Just the job for charming Ted Kennedy. No one should be in any doubt, however, about her smartness.

She won a scholarship to Colorado College, a small, private, liberal arts college in the Rocky Mountains, did her masters at the University of Colorado and her PhD in 19th-century British literature at the University of Wisconsin. Her thesis was on "The Influence of Emmanuel Kant on Matthew Arnold's Poetry". By then, she and Dick were married and living in Washington. Mrs Cheney became a freelance writer and eventually a teacher at George Washington University. Later still she became an editor on The Washingtonian, a slick weekly magazine. Meanwhile, her husband climbed his way up the Republican greasy pole. She wrote novels and a history with Dick called Kings of the Hill about characters in the House of Representatives.

Six years after coming to Washington, her husband catapulted up the political ladder to become Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff. Mrs Cheney's life changed dramatically. Her husband was away much more and she began to make the contacts that are so crucial in a city like Washington.

That was to stand her in good stead later when President Reagan was having trouble finding a new NEH chairman to succeed Bill Bennett. The first nominee was controversial, and was eventually rejected by the Senate. "When I saw the nominee would not be confirmed, I called up the White House personnel office," says Mrs Cheney. "The person who was in charge of it then was a man I knew, not well, but enough so I knew he'd take my phone call. I said, 'I'd like to be considered for that job,' and he said, 'Oh, that's a good idea. Send me a resume.' So I sent my resume in and within a few weeks I was being interviewed for the job."

What's the moral of the story? "It would have been very easy for Dick to drop some hints, but the last thing I wanted was for people to say I was there because of my husband rather than because of myself," says Mrs Cheney. The job was perfect for her, she explains, because she had the right academic and professional credentials.

During her NEH chairmanship, Mrs Cheney wrote five pamphlets on such issues as examination reform and the parlous state of US education in the humanities. And she penned all the words herself, she says.

In the pamphlet 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, she laid out what students should learn at university. In Tyrannical Machines, she blamed ossified practices teacher training, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and boring textbooks for the failure to reform education.

Her six-and-a-half year reign at NEH was fraught with conflict and culminated in a big public row about the nomination of a conservative English scholar, Carol Iannone, to the NEH's advisory panel. Iannone worked as a professor at New York University but had published nothing of academic significance, only articles in right-wing magazines.

Critics seized on an article Ms Iannone wrote in the conservative magazine Commentary, which attacked, as racially motivated and intellectually undeserved, literary prizes given to some black women writers, including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Ms Iannone said the awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, amounted to "sacrificing the demands of excellence to the 'democratic dictatorship of mediocrity' ". She added: "We have increasingly become subject to a tribalism of our own."

Mrs Cheney fought hard for Ms Iannone's nomination, lobbying Senators with her quick mind and formidable charm. But it did not work. She lost the battle and was left to lick her wounds and to muse on the clout of the East Coast liberal establishment.

She displays open frustration at the ways of the liberal intellectuals. "When you criticise higher education, you are criticising a very articulate and politicised group and so they respond," she says. "They can talk very well. I can go and give a speech exactly the same speech almost any place and have people greet it enthusiastically. It only becomes controversial on a college campus. This really is a realm apart in American life."

Most of the grants awarded at the NEH during Cheney's reign were for uncontroversial projects which attracted scant publicity. One of the highest profile awards was for the acclaimed public television series The Civil War. Not surprisingly, Mrs Cheney disputes accusations from most of her critics that she politicised the grant-making at the NEH by favouring traditional proposals over those with multicultural themes. "It was my firm belief that we should have balance in our process," she says. "We should not have a single view around the table but a number of differing views. Within that contest of opinion, within that marketplace of ideas, the truth would emerge. I also believed that NEH should not fund projects that had a pre-determined result."

One project which failed that test, in Mrs Cheney's eyes, was a television series to be called 1492. She says she was troubled by the film treatment which depicted genocide of American Indians but described the Aztecs as gentle, kind and peace-loving. The fact that the Aztecs committed human sacrifice was mentioned as a throwaway line, says Mrs Cheney.

The series was rejected for funding. Examples of that kind led to claims that she was politicising the NEH, says Mrs Cheney. "It was a bit like falling down the hole in Alice in Wonderland."

Does Mrs Cheney welcome controversy? Not always, she says, because she is not a very thick-skinned person. But there is something heady about being in the thick of intellectual combat, she admits. Does she set out to shake things up? "No," she says categorically. "I didn't have any notion that that's what I would be doing. But once I saw what was happening, I could not have had that job without speaking out about what I saw."

Her belief is that political correctness is still a big problem on American campuses, and not confined, as some say, to a minority, the big research universities. "From an outsider's perspective, it would be easy to think this was a passing episode," she says. "There was a great deal of media attention in the early 1990s. Like everything else, the media moves on to a new topic. So you might tend to think that when the media is not writing about it, it's not happening. But indeed that's not the case.

"I went to a conference in New Jersey a year ago. There were many people there from small colleges and they were bragging about how they had triumphed, how the forces of PC had won on their campus, and about how it was easier for someone who had a political agenda to dominate on a small campus where perhaps there was not so much intellectual heft to the opposition."

And what of the future? Mrs Cheney does not commit herself. Her husband is a contender for Republican candidate in the 1996 presidential race, but she will not talk about it.

Today, Mrs Cheney taps away on her computer at the American Enterprise Institute when she is not travelling the country spreading her gospel. The day after I interviewed her, she was flying to Indiana to give a campus speech on political correctness. Her book, which she says is almost finished, contains two chapters on higher education, replete with examples of where universities and colleges have gone wrong. You can be sure they will be scathing.

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