How Will Obama Influence Arts, Entertainment?

In his public appearances, President-elect Barack Obama has been known to quote poetry and harken back to his school music teacher. He likes the works of Stevie Wonder, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. NPR's Elizabeth Blair talks with Steve Inskeep about Obama's potential influence on federal policy toward the arts.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. One of the many books about John F. Kennedy's administration notes a day that the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy met a writer named Ian Fleming. Mrs. Kennedy asked if he was "the" Ian Fleming? And as soon as it became know that the Kennedy's were reading Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond took another step towards being a cultural icon. Every president has opportunities large and small to shape the culture. President Bush made his efforts to increase funding for the arts. And now we prepare for a new president who is said to like Stevie Wonder, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, among others. NPR's Elizabeth Blair is to tell us how the first couple may influence arts and entertainment. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Barack Obama's someone who has written a best-selling book. He is said to have written poetry when he was young.

BLAIR: Yes, and he has apparently quoted poetry in some of his speeches. That slipped by a lot of us. But yes he talked about the arts many times throughout the campaign.

INSKEEP: And actually had an arts committee of some kind?

BLAIR: He had a 30-plus national arts policy committee. It was unprecedented. I don't think any other candidate has ever had that level of involvement from artists.

INSKEEP: They normally have foreign police advisers and so forth...

BLAIR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But an arts adviser is a little different.

BLAIR: Or they come out with a paragraph statement about the arts and then forget it.

INSKEEP: So has he also talked about this publicly? His commitment to the arts whether it's funding or any other way he can influence them?

BLAIR: Yes, he has. He's a strong believer in arts education. We have an excerpt from a speech he gave at a high school in Pennsylvania, where he talked about how things are so different now than when he was a kid.

(Soundbite of speech)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: You always had an art teacher and a music teacher. You could be in the poorest school district in the world. Now I'm not saying music was always exciting.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Right? I mean, sometimes, you know the teacher would be making you sing songs that, you know, - from my gold show tunes, you know. I had one year as a music teacher, make you Oklahoma, where the - yeah, I was more into Stevie Wonder, so there was a - but the point is that everybody had access to music. Everybody had access to art.

INSKEEP: Wow. There you have an idea of how someone's personal experience might actually influence federal policy toward the arts.

BLAIR: I think it definitely will. The arts he has mentioned it in interviews. He obviously mentioned it on the campaign. No, he's an arts supporter. No question.

INSKEEP: So does that make him any different than President Bush?

BLAIR: Well Bush we didn't hear a lot about his support of the arts, but he has a record of asking for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. I think many arts people would say that one of the best decisions he ever made was appointing Dana Gioia as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was very popular, but he really left arts and culture to his very capable wife, Laura Bush. She was a librarian and a public school teacher. So literature, reading, supporting American writers - that's where her focus was.

INSKEEP: And Laura Bush was this program in 2001 talking about her interest in reading, and talking about her personal experiences, and how it shaped her interests.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. LAURA BUSH (First Lady, United States): And my mother loved to read and read to me, and that's why I learned to love to read. And I get letters now from people across the country who say the same thing. My mother loved the read, or my father read to me, or my grandparent loved to read. And if we show children we love to read and that we like to have books, and we have books around our house. Then they'll get that from us just by osmosis.

INSKEEP: That's Laura Bush in 2001. We're talking with NPR's Elizabeth Blair about presidents and arts policy. And the president who is coming in, as we said, is said to be a poetry lover and will have a poet reading at the inauguration.

BLAIR: That's right and her name is Elizabeth Alexander. She's a friend of the Obamas from Chicago. She's a Yale professor and in fact, she will be only the fourth poet to read at a swearing in ceremony, in American history.

INSKEEP: It's got to be rare for a living poet to have an audience of millions like this.

BLAIR: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So, did that big committee of arts advisers actually get Barack Obama to make any campaign promises about arts funding that he might have to keep now?

BLAIR: No promises, but his transition team does have a group working on arts policy recommendations. And just recently on "Meet the Press", he talked about the role of the arts in hard times.

(Soundbite of interview)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Historically, what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that sense that better days are ahead. I think that our art and our culture, our science, you know, that's the essence of what makes America special, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House.

BLAIR: You know Steve, one of the most interesting things that have come up with these different committees working with Obama is the suggestion that they should create an artist corps, a kind of Peace Corps for artists. So at relatively little cost you would have artists going into communities around the country helping with schools, helping with senior centers, and that idea has generated quite a bit of buzz in the arts world.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elizabeth Blair. Thanks very much.

BLAIR: Thank you Steve.

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