The phone rings, a pleasant voice asks you to wait, and suddenly the president of the United States invites you to the White House to receive the National Medal for the Arts. You imagine the heady experience of meeting famous celebrities, including the president and enthusiastically reply, “Thank you, of course I’ll come.”
Not always. Hidden in our celebrity-obsessed culture are individuals who still act on principle, who care more about their convictions than their media clippings. One of those people is the widely known feminist poet and essayist, Adrienne Rich.
Declining to receive the award, Rich explained, “I have a strong belief in the inseparability of art from society as a whole.”
In rejecting the award, Rich underscored her profound disappointment with Bill Clinton, a charming man who feels our pain but placates those who inflict the wounds. During his administration, Clinton has done little to stem Congress’ attack against the National Endowment for the Arts (as well the National Endowment for the Humanities). Rich refused to be honored, as a token artist, while Clinton quietly watches the arts and humanities sink ever deeper beneath the detritus of our consumer culture. In a decade, these institutions may very well turn into quaint memories for those who can still remember the 1960s and ‘70s.
Angry at Clinton’s lack of political convictions, Rich said from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., “Where growing numbers of people are marginalized, impoverished, scapegoated and beleaguered, I don’t feel I can accept an award from the government that is pursuing these policies.”
Like many of us, Rich hoped that Clinton, in his second term, might return to the left or at least to the center. Sickened by Clinton’s spinelessness, Rich wrote the president, “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
The author of 22 books, including her most recent collection of poems, “Dark Fields of the Republic,” Rich is widely recognized as one of America’s leading poets. Her elegant and moving poetry evokes the fear and struggles of ordinary people. The recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, Rich also received the so-called MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award” in 1994. Asked why she accepted that award, but not one from the president, Rich replied, “The MacArthur came from a foundation which is concerned with helping people who are creating, thinking and imagining. … I feel about this award, to be given in the White House, that it is hypocritical.”
I’m sure few people in Washington will notice or care that one poet - a longtime activist and feminist - has rejected a presidential award. But they should care. Rich’s rejection is a more serious critique of President Clinton than all the Whitewaters, bimbo eruptions and foreign finances put together. A woman of principle, she has no patience for a president who appears to have none.
With his second term, Clinton began to worry about how historians will treat him in the future. Not well, I would predict. Clinton’s scandals will not, in the end, tarnish his presidential reputation. What will damage his historical legacy is his instinctive urge to capitulate, his failure to follow Robert Reich’s plan to invest in the nation’s citizens, his refusal to protect poor women and children, his uncanny ability to squander every opportunity to improve this democracy and the strange fact that after two years in office, he turned into a Republican.
The president won’t miss Rich; he meets famous people every day who love knowing famous people because they are famous. Nor will Rich miss shaking the hand of a president who only has improved the lives of those who worry about their capital gains. For Rich, it’s a matter of principle, one of those old-fashioned virtues that used to distinguish heroes and heroines from sycophants.
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