When you hear the world "culture" in Washington, you think "political culture." When you hear the word "climate," it's "political climate" (except in August, which is too hot and humid for metaphors and all living creatures).
At lectures and charity benefits, Washingtonians seem more interested in who's there than what is said. Conversations among pols and pundits on politics and policies are usually more important than what's up on the platform.
But there are exceptions. May brings out the devotees of high and low culture for good causes and people come together to talk and even think about things other than politics. The grim news on page one can be pushed aside for a couple of hours. For those two hours some of us push aside the wretched news from Abu Ghraib Prison and focus on what our soldiers actually reflect, the character of a generous and thoughtful country in celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, which flies successfully under the radar of politics, this year actually sponsored a poet - a poet - for the 33rd annual Jefferson Lecture, the most prestigious award the federal government bestows on a scholar in the humanities.
Helen Vendler, poet and critic, reminds Americans of what we lose when we look at life through a narrow political lens, one that responds only to the urgency of daily events at the expense of art and poetic language that binds us together, the poetry that elevates our sense of humanity. The Gettysburg Address, for example, lends glory to the struggle, the tears and the dead in the war that preserved the union. In a poet's eye, a rustic bridge becomes "the rude bridge that arched the flood" where Minutemen fired "the shot heard round the world."
"Our students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture and sculpture," she says, "having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American authors."
The American authors and artists they do study are often selected now less for merit than to appease political sensibility. She wants teachers and books to lead young men and women "from passive reception to active reflection."