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."
To this end NEH sponsors what it calls the "We the People Bookshelf," which awards the classics to libraries throughout the country, all to encourage greater understanding of the culture. This year the theme of the classics is "courage," and the book list includes Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as well as Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage."
A few days after Helen Vendler's remarks to a staid audience on high culture, teenage boys and girls were goaded from "passive reception to active reflection" in a much more lowbrow venue, but a venue equally important.
At a rock 'n' roll bash, an annual fund-raiser to support mentoring programs called "Best Friends" and "Best Men," dozens of girls and boys in the sixth to ninth grades sang rock 'n' roll songs and hip-hop chants celebrating, of all things, sexual abstinence before marriage and a culture free of drugs. They're determined to make virtue fun.
These programs are the brainchild of Elayne Bennett, wife of virtuemeister William Bennett, the former secretary of education who on this night was definitely the "husband of." The event raised over half a million dollars, largely due to the auction of two cherry-red Chevrolet Corvettes that would make any Washington suit feel young again, ameliorating his post-abstinence years.
The old fogies (over 25) provided the big bucks and the kids were the stars of the evening, their young voices giving meaning to the lyrics "Rock Steady" and "Stand by Me."
It's one of the few events in Washington devoid of boring speeches, where ambassadors and congressmen can wear T-shirts and jeans and rock as though they've just seen Elvis. Not only that, the sponsored programs are getting results.
"Best Friends" is now in 100 schools in 26 cities, serving 4,000 girls, and there's a documented 30 percent decline in alcohol among its young members; 40 percent of the girls say they've given up alcohol and drugs altogether. Pregnancies are down when compared to their peers and many of the girls who graduated from the programs are now in college. "Best Men" is a newer program, but there's already a substantial drop in drug and alcohol use among its members.
Culture, like politics, can be local.