BARBRA STREISAND spoke out for the National Endowment for the Arts at Harvard. Madonna and R.E.M. have hit the radio with public-service ads extolling the NEA. But it was Garth Brooks, Kenny G and Michael Bolton -- pop stars ranging from middle-of-the-road to Muzak -- who stared down the Republican majority in the 104th Congress last week. And it was Congress that blinked.
The three musicians lobbied the Hill for the arts endowment on Tuesday. On Thursday the House voted 260 to 168 to defeat an amendment tripling the cut in the 1995 NEA budget -- with 75 Republicans, Newtish freshmen among them, in the majority.
"It's not in the bag by a long shot," rightly cautions Christopher Reeve, the most persistent show-biz lobbyist for the endowment this year. The agency could yet be killed outright. But Mr. Reeve is not alone in feeling nascent optimism after last week. For the first time in the culture war of '95, the anti-NEA forces were thrown on the defensive.
Newt Gingrich, who has called the endowment "art patronage for an elite group" and has refused to meet with its chairwoman, Jane Alexander, could not resist sitting down with Garth Brooks, the multimillionaire country-western icon who is, of course, no elitist. One witness to the meeting described Mr. Gingrich as eagerly expressing affection for his hometown Atlanta Ballet and High Museum, both NEA grantees; subsequently, he waffled to the press about the agency's fate.
Kenny G, meanwhile, politely chastised Steve Gunderson, the Wisconsin Republican floating an NEA privatization scheme, for refusing to "go to the mat" for the arts. "I told him his proposal was wimpy," Mr. G explained on the phone later, "though I didn't use the word wimpy."
None of these encounters happened by chance. The pro-NEA troops have found a general: Michael Greene, CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. A Georgian who overlapped with Mr. Gingrich at West Georgia College, Mr. Greene first took command at the Grammy Awards on March 1, when, in defiance of CBS dictums, he gave an endowment-advocacy speech with an 800 number (651-1575).
Calls and telegrams have flooded Congress ever since. When Mr. Greene brought his pop threesome to Washington last Tuesday, he did so in sync with a mass lobbying day organized by the American Council for the Arts, an association of the nation's high-culture institutions.The powerhouse kickoff speaker was a conservative Republican -- Winton Blount, the Alabama industrialist and arts philanthropist who partially privatized the Postal Service when in the Nixon Cabinet but who dismissed rhetoric about privatizing the NEA as demagogy.
Mr. Greene cast his star lobbyists as shrewdly as the Arts Council chose Mr. Blount. "Neither Garth nor I am particularly liberal," Mr. Greene explained in an interview, adding that he decided to avoid Hollywood's "stereotypical personalities" in picking the cadre that stormed the Hill.
Mr. Greene doesn't pull punches about his enemy in this war. Noting that the endowment's annual $167 million is too small to contribute to serious budget balancing, he adds: "This isn't about Mapplethorpe or Serrano, either. It's about the political agenda of the religious right. Their minions are spending millions and millions of dollars trying to smudge the political reputation of people who don't think like they think . . . or believe what they believe. That is McCarthyism, and that is frightening." As Exhibit A, he cited a newly circulating fund-raising letter from the Christian Action Network, promising to hold Mr. Gingrich's "feet to the fire" to eliminate "this hateful, blasphemous and pro-homosexual federal agency."
But the political lesson of last week is that moderates are finally mobilizing to hold the Republicans' feet to the fire on this issue, too, just as they are starting to do on other religious-right crusades like abortion and school prayer. It will take a grotesque brand of McCarthyism indeed for the GOP's extremists to portray federal arts funding as an assault on mainstream American values when the likes of Garth Brooks is loudly singing the NEA's praises from the middle of the road.
Frank Rich is a New York Times columnist.