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A Day at the White House

President and Mrs. Johnson are planning the most extensive arts festival ever held in the White House,” reported the New York Times on May 27th. It would last thirteen hours, there would be exhibitions of current American painting, sculpture, and photography; programs of American plays, movies, ballet, and music; and readings by two novelists, Saul Bellow and John Hersey, two poets. Robert Lowell and Phyllis McGinley, and one popular biographer, Catherine Drinker Bowen. The Johnsonian consensus: Bellow and Lowell balanced against Hersey and McGinley, with Miss Bowen added to the democratic, or kitschy, side of the scale to make it all the more consensual. As the drunk said about the books in Jay Gatsby’s library: “Absolutely real—have pages and everything…. See! It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter…. This fella’s a regular Belasco! What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Our President, too, is a regular Belasco for realistic stage settings and, like Gatsby, he knows when, and where, to stop: just beyond Miss Bowen. He doesn’t cut the pages. But what do you want, what do you expect? A consensus is a consensus.

A week later, the consensus was broken by Robert Lowell, who wrote a letter to the President that appeared on the front page of the June 3rd Times:

…. Although I am very enthusiastic about most of your domestic legislation and intentions, I nevertheless can only follow our present foreign policy with the greatest dismay and distrust…. We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin.

I know it is hard for the responsible man to act; it is also painful for the private and irresolute man to dare criticism. At this anguished, delicate and perhaps determining moment, I feel I am serving you and our country best by not taking part in the White House Festival of the Arts.

In the same issue of the Times, statements appeared by Bellow and Hersey explaining why they had decided not to join Lowell. Neither expressed disagreement with his “dismay and distrust” (though Bellow seemed to accept Vietnam, criticizing only the Dominican occupation; I’m told he had first written a much stronger letter but then, like his Herzog, didn’t send it; there was to be plenty of Herzogian behavior by others at the Festival). Bellow reasoned—logically enough if one doesn’t accept Lowell’s premise that our recent foreign policy is so shameful and disastrous as to make it an overriding consideration even in lending support to a Presidential arts festival—that it was not “a political occasion which demands agreement with Mr. Johnson on all the policies of his administration.” “Moreover,” he concluded, “Mr. Johnson is not simply this country’s principal policy-maker. He is an institution. When he invited me to Washington, I accepted in order to show my respect for his intentions and to honor his high office.” This makes no sense to me. President Harding had “intentions” and he was also “an institution” to whose “high office” honor was, on this reasoning, due. But I don’t think Bellow, had he been anachronistically invited to the White House then, would have accepted, any more than Emerson and Thoreau would have agreed to read from their works if President Polk had staged an arts festival during the Mexican War.

Mr. Hersey said he was “deeply troubled by the drift toward reliance on military solutions in our foreign policy” but that he felt he could “make a stronger point by standing in the White House, I would hope in the presence of the President, and reading from a work of mine entitled Hiroshima.”

The day Lowell’s letter appeared in the Times I was asked to sign a telegram to the President supporting his position, which I gladly did because I agreed with its content and admired its personal, unrhetorical style. The statement appeared in the next morning’s Times (June 4) and the same morning I received a telegram: “THE PRESIDENT AND MRS. JOHNSON INVITE YOU TO THE WHITE HOUSE FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS TO BEGIN AT 10 AM ON JUNE 14TH AND CONTINUE THROUGH THE EVENING…” After some thought, and consultation, I decided that while the most consistent course, morally and intellectually, would be to refuse—also, if I may say so, the easiest—it might be more fruitful to accept, so that at least one critical observer would be there to report on what happened. So I wired my acceptance to the Festival’s impresario, Dr. Eric Goldman—Professor of History at Princeton and President Johnson’s chief cultural adviser—stating that, as he probably knew by then, I supported Lowell’s stand and should feel free to comment publicly on the Festival. On these terms I sacrificed, not for the first time, consistency, and possibly even good taste, in the interest of a larger objective.

It turned out to be worth it. For one thing, I secured a copy of a document of primary importance, whose significance none of the newspaper reports, including Howard Taubman’s copious account in the Times, seem to have grasped: the guest list.1 I’ve seen no mention, for instance, that there were two guest lists, one for the first sitting, from 10 AM on, and the other for the second, from 7 PM on. Each contained roughly 175 persons, but the first group was invited for the major part of the Festival while the second came in only for a cocktail party on the lawn followed by the President’s speech of welcome, a buffet supper, and two hours of ballet and jazz. The most enjoyable part of the day in fact, but still they were placed below the salt. The only rationale of this discrimination I can detect is that all the artists without exception—all the painters, sculptors and photographers—were relegated to the second sitting. A mistake, if one purpose of the Festival was, as a White House “source” suggested, to bring together the patron and the artist. But further examination of the guest list shows the aims to have been different. “Does anyone know exactly why this particular group of people is here or why this Festival is being held in the first place?” Mildred Dunnock asked. (She was there to give two soliloquies from Death of a Salesman—but, still, why?) Asked the same question later, Jack Valenti, a Presidential assistant, answered: “This is a wonderful thing to show the White House’s great interest in the arts. It doesn’t matter why, just that it was.” Theirs not to reason why…So one purpose was to give the Johnson administration a cultural image, a consensus of artists and writers reciprocating “the White House’s great interest in the arts” by turning out for the Festival.

But the main purpose was to impress not the actual producers of art or thought with the “White House’s great interest” but rather our cultural fuglemen (“a trained soldier stationed in front of a military company as a guide for the others in their exercises”), that is, directors and patrons of art museums, presidents of symphony orchestras (i.e., the money holders or raisers—no directors or composers of any note were present, not Stravinsky or Copland or Thomson or Carter or Stokowski or Barber or Harris or Bernstein or Menotti), organizers of local “arts councils,” and various pundits from TV, newspapers, and big-circulation magazines. Whether this purpose was achieved or not I don’t know, but that it was paramount an examination of the guest list shows.

Excluding the ex officio invitees who were asked because they were reading or acting or dancing or playing music or because their pictures or sculptures or movies or plays were on view—eighty would be a generous estimate, most of them in the below-the-salt 7 PM sitting—there were present at either 10 AM or 7 PM the following who might be considered to have some direct connection with arts and letters: Alfred H. Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, Ralph Ellison, Reed Whittemore (this year’s poet in residence at the Library of Congress), Thomas Hess (editor of Art News), José Limon, Russell Lynes, Paul Horgan, Pauline Kael (movie critic), Harold Taylor, Henry Geldzahler (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Frank Getlein (art critic), and myself. Adding, to be generous, ten or so newspaper critics (if there can be such a creature) and the art editor of Time, this comes to twenty-five participants who were some kind of artist or writer (and who were invited as part of the audience). Add five Senators and Congressmen (who seem to have been selected for political rather than cultural reasons—Javits, Lindsay, Morse, Robert Kennedy, Paul Douglas, and Fulbright are not on the list while Congressmen Brademas, Farnsley, and Thompson are, also Senators Cooper and Yarborough) and another five names I’ve at least heard of: Earl Warren, Sol Hurok, Abe Fortas, Irv Kupcinet (a Chicago columnist and TV impresario—“Kup’s show”—whose iridescent jacket livened things up) and the Hon. William Walton, chairman of the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and one of the few Kennedy intimates who were present.2 Adding these ten to the artists and intellectuals mentioned above, we get 113 names or about one-third of the participants, active or passive, in the Festival. What of the other two-thirds? A good number, perhaps thirty, are not identified nor do their names wake any resonance in my ear. No doubt Fred Lazarus and Mrs. Irma Lazarus, both of Cincinnati, Mrs. R. Max Brooks of Austin, Texas, and Dr. Abdul Hamid, the Rector of the University of Kabul, all had some reason for being there. Likewise the large New York City contingent of names unknown to me, such as Paul Leaf, Mr. and Mrs. Wright Rumbough, Jr., Lansdell K. Christie, and Orrin Christy, Jr.

There is no doubt, however, as to the identity of the great majority of participants. They were patrons, bureaucrats or entrepreneurs of culture: Dempster Christenson, Pres., Sioux Falls-Augustana Sym. Orch., S. Dak.; R. Phillips Hanes, Jr., Pres., Arts Council of America, Winston-Salem, N. C.; John D. Rockefeller III, Chr. Bd. Trustees, Lincoln Center, NYC; Mrs. Hugh Bullock, Pres., the Academy of American Poets, NYC; Hon. Roger Stevens, Chr., National Council on the Arts, Washington, D. C.; Col. Eben Henson, Pres., Kentucky Council of the Performing Arts, Danville, Ky.; and J. Paul Hewitt, Chr., Louisiana Commission on Culture and the Performing Arts, which seems to take care of everything.

I entered the White House on the dot of ten and was greeted cordially by an attractive young matron who gave me a smile, and a luxurious program with the President’s seal embossed on its laid-paper cover, and a large card with my name (misspelled “McDonald”) inscribed in bold calligraphy over a pale blue vignette of the White House. She pressed the gummy back side to my chest—rather like being decorated—and it stuck there all through that long day’s journey into night. I was then briefed on my next move (“Straight up the stairs, sir, then sharp right“) by one of the pleasant young officers who chivvied us about all day like respectful sheepdogs. Their crisp, incredibly clean white uniforms were accented only by brass buttons, silver shoulder-bars and one of those military shoulder corsages of gold cords and tassels looped over the left shoulder.

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    How many others beside Lowell declined, and for what reasons. I don’t of course know. Two refusals because of our present foreign policy have been made public: those of the photographer, Paul Strand, and the sculptor. Alexander Calder. And two have not: those of Jack Levine, the painter, and Robert Brustein, the drama critic—both have authorized me to state the fact. As for the rest of the absentees, who include practically the entire literary establishment, from Edmund Wilson to Thornton Wilder, all that can be said is that they were not there.

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    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, was not invited, although he had ridiculed Lowell’s letter and described Lewis Mumford’s speech, as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, criticizing our current foreign policy, as “an anxious blast of a somewhat inchoate sort.” Schlesinger, who was once a professor of history, added that the reactions of the audience reminded him of the “wild, unleashed emotionalism” of Hitler’s Nüremberg rallies. What more could one ask? But Lyndon Johnson is a hard man; no invitation.

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