Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander
Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics
ISBN: 1891620061
Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics
Full of amusing anecdotes and profiles of celebrities, this charming, opinionated, and wise memoir of Jane Alexander's tenure at the National Endowment of the Arts brings humor and human dimension to the politics of art and the art of politics.
—from the publisher's website
Search Audible
Video Clip Search is not avaialbe for this video.
TRANSCRIPT
Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics
Program Air Date: August 13, 2000

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jane Alexander, author of "Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics," why did you decide to write this book?
Ms. JANE ALEXANDER (Author, "Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics"): When I was in my second year, 1994, and there was a huge change when the 104th Congress came in and Newt Gingrich was speaker, and the Endowment was slated for elimination, all the shenanigans that were going on I thought were so bizarre that I thought the American public should really know how inside Washington works.
LAMB: So how did you go about--I mean, did you--did you prepare before your term ended, write notes and stuff in diaries?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. I had two directives from the White House when I first took the job in '93, and the first was to stay out of the headlines; the second was to keep a diary. Now you may remember that Senator Bob Packwood's diaries really incriminated him shortly thereafter, and everybody was ditching their diaries, but I kept scribbling, and I ended up with about 14 of them.
LAMB: Did you write this yourself?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yes.
LAMB: Did you ever think about having somebody write it for you?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I did, indeed. In fact, a New York Times journalist wanted to do this story with me and encouraged me, but then the publisher I chose to go with simply didn't have the funds to pay for the two of us. So I said, `Well, all right. I'm going to do it on my own.' And--and the publisher said, `If you need help, we'll give it to you down the line.' But I so enjoyed it, I didn't feel I needed the help.
LAMB: Give us the time frame of all this. And what is it you're writing about?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I'm writing essentially a memoir of my four years in Washington, 1993 to 1997, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But I had been in Washington as a member of the company of Arena Stage in the 1960s for three years, and then I had been off and on at the Kennedy Center as a leading lady under the Roger Stevens administration of the Kennedy Center all through the '70s and early '80s. So I go back and forth in time and talk about my career and my early life and everything to try to inform people who read it about who I am, where I'm coming from and what I saw when I came to Washington as a pol.
LAMB: When you came here, how large was the National Endowment for the Arts financially? How much money did it get?
Ms. ALEXANDER: $174.5 million in 1993.
LAMB: And when you left, what was it getting?
Ms. ALEXANDER: $99 million.
LAMB: And how about today?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Under $98 million.
LAMB: What happened?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, the 104th Congress, under Gingrich, cut the budget by over 40 percent during my chairmanship, and under my successor's, Bill Ivey, it's just been a matter of recisions cut and nothing dramatic, as it was under my chairmanship.
LAMB: What would you tell someone, who'd never heard about the National Endowment for the Arts, what it does?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Its mission is to expand the appreciation and participation of the arts in all communities of Amer--of America. It's a public investment in the arts and communities.
LAMB: Like what? Give us some examples.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it's everything from a folk and traditional arts program, where we could have an apprenticeship in Alaskan soapstone carving by Inuit peoples to the symphony in Pittsburgh.
LAMB: Did you consciously think through what you--how you characterized people in this book, meaning the politicians? I mean, you--I--I wrote them all down as I went through. I said, `I've got to ask her about this one and this one.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: I--I--I f--I mean, coming from the world of acting, what I do is observe human behavior, and I'm also a birder, so I tend to look at people and think of them as birds. I didn't include that in the book very much, thank God, but I did start to have very strong opinions about--about the way people were and acted.
LAMB: One of the first I wrote down was Tom DeLay, the majority leader in the House of Representatives. You said that, `His brain could fit into an egg cup as far as I could tell.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well--well...
LAMB: What's a--what's a--tell me about him and why you would feel that strongly about him.
Ms. ALEXANDER: I just don't think he's very swift upstairs.
LAMB: D--but, again, going back to wh--you know, when people write books like this, they don't often characterize people like that. Did you think through that you're ever going to come back to this town again and be in politics?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. No. And--and, see, that's another reason why I wanted the book--write the book. Not be--I didn't want to trash people per se, but I didn't have to worry about censoring my own tongue or my thoughts about people when I characterized them because I don't have an investment in politics, except as a citizen.
LAMB: You said that early--in--in--it's a couple times in the book--that you learned to keep your mouth shut while you were in the chairman's role.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Sure.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. ALEXANDER: You have to. I mean, politics is all about compromise. You never know who's going to be on top tomorrow. It's very much like Hollywood in that regard, you know? In--in--in Hollywood, you wouldn't dare trash the head of a studio because you'll never work again.
LAMB: Jesse Helms, `Old codger.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, he is. He's a wily codger.
LAMB: What's that mean?
Ms. ALEXANDER: He's--there--there's something charming about codgerism and codgers, and Jesse is that way personally. He's a courtly Southern gentleman. We got along just fine. I mean, we just disagree on just about everything, but he's civil in person. And, you know, that--that was fine. But he's wily, and he doesn't miss a trick, as far as I'm concerned.
LAMB: You point out that, at one point, he was giving you a tour--I don't remember the exact circumstances--and he said, `You see my horns. You can come over to my office and feel my horns any day,' or something like that. Did that surprise you?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, that was my very first introduction to Jesse Helms--was in the halls of Congress and--and the Capitol Building. And Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who had become an early friend of mine on--on the Hill, said, `Oh, there's Jesse. Come on, let's go over and meet him.' And--and Alan said, `Senator, I'd like you to meet Jane Alexander, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.' He looked straight in my eyes, and then he said, `You can come to my office and feel my horns anytime.' I mean, it was lewd and funny at the same time.
LAMB: You think he thought it was lewd?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. I think that what he thought he was doing was, `I'm characterized as the devil. Look at me.' But the gesture was lewd.
LAMB: You went to see Slade Gorton, the senator from the state of Washington, and he didn't know who you were.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well, that just irritated me because, I mean, politicians should be briefed on who's coming to see them. And...
LAMB: He had no idea who you were?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. He said, `I hear you've done some acting.' I--it's ju--it was just a matter of, `OK, why isn't the senator briefed on who I am, what my--my past history as an artist has been at least by their aides?' I encountered this again and again, not that people didn't know who I was, but that they weren't up on the issues. They did not know what the National Endowment for the Arts did, and they were ignorant, and they continued to be ignorant.
LAMB: You said that, `Politicians were no better than used car salesmen.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: I didn't say that. Well, I did say that, you're right. I thought that JFK Jr. was thinking that when I was railing against the fact that the politicians I had visited in their offices very often would say, `Well, I support you. I'm going to be there for you,' and then get up on the House floor or the Senate floor and vote against the NEA. So JFK Jr. just kind of looked at me, with that wonderful, cocky little smirk of his, as if he's saying--saying, `Oh, come on. Wise up. Wh--why are you expecting more of--of politicians than you do of used car salesmen?'
LAMB: You said that Barbara Vucanovich had a seeming lack of intelligence.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, yes, I think so because...
LAMB: She's from Nevada. She's not there anymore.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, she's not there anymore. But she--she--she shocked me by saying, `Well, I'm going to vote against the NEA because of grants you give.' And I say, `Well, what are the specific grants you're talking about?' She said, `Oh, you know, that Mapplethorpe and Serano.' I said, `That was over five years ago.' And she said, `It doesn't matter. It's the perception that counts.' And I--I thought, `Oh, my gosh, here we are. If perception is all that counts and not the truth, what is happening at the top levels of our government?' I really was alarmed by it.
LAMB: What were the issues around Robert Mapplethorpe? And is it Andre Serano?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Andre Serano, yeah.
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Both photographers. Andre Serano did a really luscious photograph of a crucifix. It looked like it--it's got fire all around it. I had not seen it at the time; I've seen it since, the--the--the photograph. He named it "Piss Christ."
LAMB: It's a photo--a crucifix in a--in a jar of urine?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. You don't really see the jar so much, but you see this little crucifix surrounded by, it looks like, fire and bubbles and sunlight. It's--it--as a photograph, it's quite striking and beautiful. But when he named it "Piss Christ," he--the ire of many, many Christians became apparent and...
LAMB: Had the taxpayer paid for that?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Only through an exhibition to a museum. It was not a direct grant to the photographer.
LAMB: And that's now how many years ago?
Ms. ALEXANDER: That was like 1989.
LAMB: And Robert Mapplethorpe--what were the circumstances there?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mapplethorpe, again, was a--an exhibition, a retrospective of his work in which there were--again, I did not see it, that--that particular exhibit, but as I understand it, there maybe were five or six homo-erotic photographs. And, again, not a direct grant to the artist. It was a museum grant.
LAMB: You--you tell a story a--about a dinner party at Senator Boren's house, Senator David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, used to be senator. David Gergen was there, Jack Valenti and others. What were the circumstances, and why did you put it in your book?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I had just been confirmed or was just about to be confirmed as NEA chair, and--and I hadn't been around the Washington scene, and I didn't know how--what to expect. So I was at this reception dinner party, and I was sitting at a very low coffee table on a silly little footstool, and David Gergen looming--big fellow--looming to my right, and little Meg Greenfield, who has since departed this planet--lovely woman--was...
LAMB: Used to run the editorial page of The Washington Post.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Exactly--was sitting on my left, and Jack Valenti opposite on the sofa with three high-powered Washington lawyers. And right away, Gergen says, `What's your defin--definition of art?' I can't even remember what I said, but I was so taken aback, and I--I still don't know how to define what art is, and there's very few people who really can. So I came out with a relatively academic response, which was so boring. I mean, I was boring myself while I was saying it. And Gergen kept shooting down my arguments, and finally--and Meg Greenfield said nothing. I wanted the support of this woman. Nothing.

And, finally, Valenti says, `Well, my definition of art is that which endures,' and all I thought was, `Poor dancers.' How do dancers or even actors--our art is very ephemeral, except if you're on celluloid. So I sat there totally shot down. They--they all rose and walked like as one into the dining room, and I was left there. And a fellow, who was about--a little bit further away than you are from me right now, got up, came over and said, `Welcome to Washington.' And it was Tom Lovejoy, who's this famous biologist who is in biodiversity at the Smithsonian. And he said, `Let me take you to lunch.'
LAMB: What did he mean by that?
Ms. ALEXANDER: He meant that he had to tell me the ropes a little bit about how things worked in Washington and how you're expected to behave and conduct. In other words, I probably should never have answered that question or tried to.
LAMB: Are you, at that stage in the game, liking this job that you were in the middle of, when you were at that dinner? I mean, what--what were--what were you feeling about Washington?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Very excited. I'd grown up in Boston. I mean, I grew up revering the Founders of our nation as the great--and I love the Constitution. In the late '70s, I predated Sandra Day O'Connor by playing the first woman Supreme Court justice opposite Hank Fonda in a play called "First Monday in October." I knew the Constitution backwards and forwards back then, and I loved it. I revered it. I thought it was a great, great document. When I came to Washington and people were trying to subvert the Constitution, I was really taken aback. So I was idealistic, maybe I was naive--probably, but I haven't lost my ideals, but I'm cynical.
LAMB: You call Robert Dornan `downright crazy.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think he was. I mean, he's known as Maddog Dar--Dornan, and he--it did seem like he was foaming at the mouth sometimes when he'd get up and get on railing in the House about any issue he took exception to, particularly the NEA.
LAMB: Did you ever have to deal with him?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Never had to deal with him one on one, except when I went to a--an arts caucus luncheon. He came up to me, all sweetness and light, and said, `You know, I'm an actor, too. That's what I used to do.' I thought, `Well, you'd better go back to it. You'd be better off out of politics.'
LAMB: Senator Don Nickles, `clearly homophobic.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think so, yeah.
LAMB: And how did you find that out?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I met with a lot of rampant homophobia in Congress. We know about Jesse Helms. It's not as readily apparent about other senators and congressmen, but in the privacy of their offices, they would say to me, you know, `It's--it's the ga--it's the grants that--that go to art that i--has a homosexual nature or two homosexuals that's getting the Endowment in trouble.' I tried to point out that, you know, they're taxpayers, too, and 10 per--fully 10 percent in any given survey or--of--of the American public are homosexuals.
LAMB: Bob Byrd. You say that every time you used to call him and try to get in touch with him, that he was just--that they'd always tell you he's simply out, and he never got back to you.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: And is--how often did you run into that in the town, period?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I--of course, Robert Byrd at that time was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and he had a huge staff, and he was a very, very busy man. But I do think that he does play a game--a little power game and--and doesn't get back. But other--I--I could usually get right to senators, and I could usually get right to Cabinet secretaries, department heads. The vice president would return my calls. The vice president was terrific. I mean, he'd return them in--within one day. But with the exception of the president and Bob Byrd, I wouldn't usually get a call back.
LAMB: What was your relationship with Bob Byrd when you did get in to see him, and what did he want?
Ms. ALEXANDER: He was angry at--at one particular grant, really, what he felt was a continuing egregiousness on the part of the Endowment to fund controversial work. I tried to explain that, again, these were grants to institutions for seasonal work or for exhibitions. And it was one in particular that bothered him, and he was threatening to cut the theater program, the visual arts program and our presenting program by 5 percent, which was an enormous amount of money back then in 1994. It was about 10--more than $10 million. And it--it really could have made--wreaked havoc with those programs. So I had to go and sit down and talk with him about it.
LAMB: A name that you see if you live here in town, but you don't see it as much as you put it in the book is Melanne Verveer. Bring her name up--first of all, who is she? And what kind of a role does somebody like Melanne Verveer play in your life when you come to town and you've been nominated to be chairman of the NEA?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Melanne Verveer was the woman I most admired in Washington; continues to be the woman I most admire. She was the adviser to the president and the first lady on the arts and the first lady on other issues, as well as the arts, and has since become Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff. After I left the Endowment, she became chief of staff. Melanne shepherded me through the confirmation process, and she continued to be my adviser on the arts from the administration side. And she's a loyal, bright, remarkable woman.
LAMB: So go back to the confirmation process. Was there ever any doubt that you'd become a confirmed chairman of the NEA?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I don't think that there was a doubt that I'd become it after the president nominated me. It was whether I would be unanimously confirmed, which I finally was.
LAMB: What advice did Melanne Verveer give you then when you started this process? What--I mean, let's--for a moment, pretend like you're telling the next person to come in--that comes in, what do you do when you come here?
Ms. ALEXANDER: You pay courtesy calls on the Hill...
LAMB: Why?
Ms. ALEXANDER: ...right away. Well, you--you have to get to know the senators, and the senators have to get to know you right away, and es--especially the ones that are sitting on the committee because they don't have time, really, to--to come in and have--have me make my presentation, my--have the hearing and then know what to vote on. So...
LAMB: So how many visits did you have to make before you were confirmed?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, at least a dozen I made, maybe more.
LAMB: And what did--what were you thinking as you went through the process? And you go back to the Constitution. Is this the right way to do something like this?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I th--I think it is the only way, yes, in the beginning, although I felt that the--to be confirmed as chairman of the NEA on such a laborious process, which involves FBI vetting, complete financial disclosure going back to all my employment since the age of 16 was a little over the top for peacetime for the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. But, listen, we're having problems with security and espionage today, so maybe anybody could be suspect.
LAMB: One of the things you drop into your book, I must say, was a complete surprise was Jim Powers and--leading right up--right before you're nominated or right in that process. Why did you choose to put that in the book? And tell us, who is Jim Powers?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Jim Powers was my husband's and my accountant for 23 years, dating back to the beginning of the '70s, and he embezzled us of virtually everything we owned over a process of five years. And he embezzled much of--of--of the assets of eight other clients. We first found this out at the same time that the FBI was doing their vetting of me, and the New York County attorney general's office called me down to Lower Manhattan, Ed and me, one day, and said, `I don't know how to tell you this, but you have nothing.' And they had been investigating him for the better part of a year, and--and she was right. We didn't--I mean, I--we had our house left because he was not able to refinance that.
LAMB: You had absolutely nothing?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. We had nothing. I had...
LAMB: But you also said he had a liability, a tax liability.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. He didn't pay our taxes for five years. That was the killer.
LAMB: How did it happen? How could--give me...
Ms. ALEXANDER: You know, when you're in show business, you very often hand over a lot of what you do, your accounts and everything, to a manager because I was--during the '70s and '80s and even the early part of the '90s, I'd be making movies or going to perform in theaters, not only around the United States, but abroad, too, as well: Hungary, Germany, Spain, you know. And--and this is very common in the entertainment world.

And so we had just given over too much to him. We got quarterly reports, but he was a criminal. He ha--he--he had forged my name a number of times. He would whiteout the actual numbers, put them through a copy machine and then that was what we received, so it looked--put his own numbers in, you know. And he had also cleverly allowed--allowed every single bit of correspondence with the IRS and everything to go back to him. So we never got any of the notices or anything.
LAMB: Where is he today?
Ms. ALEXANDER: He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but because of white-collar crime and crowded New York prisons, he was out after three. He's--he's in the streets of New York, I s--I presume, on a work release.
LAMB: Did you ever total up what the whole loss was in money?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Our loss, we estimate, was about a million and a half, but that was with real estate and other things. Total, with all the nine victims, was about $5 million.
LAMB: And what year did you learn this, again?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I learned it in the middle of my vetting process with the FBI in 1993, in the spring of '93.
LAMB: Have a photograph in your book here I want to show. Tell us who's in this photo right here.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, those are--that's my family. My husband's next to me, and John Sherin, my youngest stepson.
LAMB: And which side is John Sherin on?
Ms. ALEXANDER: John Sherin is over here.
LAMB: OK. Right next to you.
Ms. ALEXANDER: And right next to me is my son, Jace Alexander; my husband, Ed, on the other side of me; our stepson, Jeff, who's since passed away in the back; and Tony Sherin, my eldest stepson in the front.
LAMB: And who is your husband?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Ed Sherin. And...
LAMB: What's he do?
Ms. ALEXANDER: He has been producing the TV series "Law & Order" for the past seven years, and he's just stepped down from that.
LAMB: So Ed Sherin and Jane Alexander have no money and owe money, back taxes, and you're about to be confirmed. What'd you do?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, Dick Wolf, who was the creator of "Law & Order," called up Ed immediately when he heard 'cause it was in the papers, and he called Ed up and he said, `Ed, your loss is my gain. I want you to produce "Law & Order."' And Ed had always been a free-lance director, but this was our saving grace, and we thank Dick to this day because Ed was receiving a good, regular salary. And within five years, we were back in the black again.
LAMB: You mentioned that your stepson had passed away, and you talk about it in the book. What happened?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm. He died suddenly of a heart attack, skiing, at the age of 33. There were no symptoms prior to that. And it was just one of those awful, tragic things that happen.
LAMB: There's a picture in the book also right here of the president, and you v--talk a lot about trying to get a meeting with him.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: When did this happen?
Ms. ALEXANDER: That meeting, I believe, is in '95. Yeah.
LAMB: That your first meeting with him?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, first and only in the Oval Office. I--I saw him at numerous social events. And--oh, well, there is a signing in the Oval Office and a--another time for the Kennedy Center bill, but my only one on one, what they call face time, with the president was--was the one at the top.
LAMB: What'd you think of your meeting with him?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I--he's--he was always very supportive of the agencies, and the administration was always very supportive. But, again, I--I don't know how to say it. I think that I wanted more from politicians in terms of an understanding of what the arts and the federal role in arts funding means to society at large. I wanted clear support of the First Amendment, which, by the way, the Supreme Court has given us in their 1998 decision on the Finley Four--I mean, The NEA Four, Karen Finley, et al.
LAMB: You qu--I wrote this down: `He was warm and supportive, but his reach didn't seem to extend beyond the next handshake.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: Was this hard to learn about the president that nominated you?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. But I was wising up about politicians in general. And the denouement of the whole arc of my story really is an understanding that politicians are in it for the game and the game to win. And nobody plays that game better than Bill Clinton, to my mind. And it means if he--I think he looks at it if he wins, then he's able to get some legislation passed. In such a partisan atmosphere that we have now, you could get no legislation passed if you didn't try to win points here and there. So that's what he was doing. I--I just play a different game in life. I mean, people who come from the world of arts play a different game. It's not win--win or, you know, you--some people are in it to make money, but most artists in the non-profit arts world are in it for the love of the thing.
LAMB: You also said that when you got out in the country--and again I wrote the quote down--"People felt life was good, politicians were dumb and who cared?"
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: Well...
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think the American public is way ahead of--of a lot of politicians. It's--it became very clear to me and as ovul--clear to a lot of political writers--that politicians are led by the nose by the special interests that back their campaigns. And it's--who can blame them? I mean, any--you get elected to the House, you have to pay off your campaign debts and start raising more money for the next race.
LAMB: You said that the system is so corrupt that it may never be fixed.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I think it may never be fixed.
LAMB: Has it always been this corrupt, do you think?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think it's always been corrupt in certain respects, and you can live with a certain amount of corruption, but we don't have a lot of statesmen anymore. We have more money than ever. And our campaigns are longer than ever. I mean, Canada campaigns a couple of months. Why can't we do that?
LAMB: Why do you think we do it the way we do it?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Because I think special interests control our Congress now.
LAMB: Why do they control our Congress?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Because they have all the money.
LAMB: You mentioned Karen Finley. Who was she and what role did that play in the arts world?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Karen Finley was a performance artist. She still is, sh--a very serious performance artist in the United States. And she was vilified and ridiculed by Jesse Helms in particular back in the early '90s and--late '80s, early '90s. Karen Finley and three other performance artists brought suit against the National Endowment for the Arts when my predecessor, John Frohnmayer, decided not to advance the recommendation of the panel of the NEA to give them grants to the National Council on the Arts. They brought suit against the agency, saying the content of their work was why he refused to do that and they finally, ultimately, took that suit all the way to the Supreme Court, which came down with a decision in their favor in 1998.
LAMB: Other things that you write about are that--you know, the loyalty oath or the decency clause and all that.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Wha--what is that?
Ms. ALEXANDER: The decency clause was put into the Endowment's legislation by well-meaning senators--Ted Kennedy, Claiborne Pell, I think it was, Kassebaum and Hatch--thinking that if they said the de--that--well, there were two di--different decency clauses. One was a decency--what they call a--a decency oath that--that artists, given grants, had to sign. And that was shot down in the courts when Bella Lewitzky brought suit against that in the late '80s and early '90s.

The second was the one I just mentioned, where the decency clause was put into the legislation saying the panelists had to take decency into consideration when awarding grants. The Supreme Court has also said that that legislation in the same decision in '98 can hold ca--is--Congress can have it in there. But meanwhile, decency has been considered unconstitutionally vague language for a very long time. And I suspect there may be another suit someday down the line in court about it.
LAMB: Why should the American taxpayer support the arts?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I think the American taxpayer should support the arts at a federal level. Let's talk about that...
LAMB: That's all I'm talking about, the federal level.
Ms. ALEXANDER: ...not the state level. Yeah. Because we're talking about celebrating the genius of our nation, if you will, and all great nations in--in Earth, the industrialized ones, support the arts at a national level that then filters down to the local level. We--we also need to have a national recognition of what artists mean to our nation. And that's what the--the grant gives them. It's wonderful to have a state grant, it's great to have a local grant, but a national grant is very, very special.

We don't have national treasures like other nations. But an NEA grant gives an--an artist a sense that a--the jury of his peers brought together from racially, ethnically, even aesthetically diverse peoples, private citizens, rul--you know, judging their application is really a standard of excellence and merit that it can't get any better in this country.
LAMB: Who started the National Endowment for the Arts? Which president?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it began under Lyndon Johnson. It was a dream of John F. Kennedy's, and Johnson, in 1965, was the one who finally signed off on it.
LAMB: And which president had the most money in his budget for it?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Richard Nixon. And that's why I say it should not be a partisan issue. I mean, our cultural institutions in the United States are--are supported in great measure by the private donations of Republicans. So this should not be a partisan issue.
LAMB: And you ended up playing in "All the President's Men"?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What'd you play?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I played the bookkeeper of the slush fund under Mitchell.
LAMB: But at the time, did--from what you say in the book, you felt fairly strongly about Richard Nixon.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, goodness, yes.
LAMB: What'd you think of him?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Not very much. I mean, we were so opposed, my friends and myself, to the Vietnam War, even though my brother was over there back in the '60s and early '70s, that I didn't think highly of Richard Nixon at all. I didn't think highly of LBJ back then. But I feel a lot better about LBJ these days.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Brookline, Massachusetts. Boston, I was born in Boston.
LAMB: But your dad came from the Midwest somewhere.
Ms. ALEXANDER: North Platte, Nebraska.
LAMB: How long did he live there?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, Dad lived there, I think, until he went off to Omaha Central High School at the age of--he went to Omaha Central High at about 14 because he went to Harvard at 16. He skipped a lot of grades. And on a scholarship, he went to Harvard and Harvard Med School, and he stayed in--in the Boston area.
LAMB: And when did he meet your mother?
Ms. ALEXANDER: In 1938 in a residency in New York City.
LAMB: And what did she do?
Ms. ALEXANDER: She was a nurse to--scrub nurse to a neurosurgeon.
LAMB: And when you were growing up, when did you first get interested in the arts?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, when I was a little kid.
LAMB: Doing what?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, my dad took me to a performance. My dad had been away in the Second World War for a long time, about five years. That's little Jane, yeah.
LAMB: You're a year old here?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. And there's my--my grandmother holding my dad with Buffalo Bill there because my grandfather was Buffalo Bill's doctor out in o--in--in Nebraska, North Platte.

My dad came back from the war in late '45 and a couple of years later--I was very estranged from him. He'd been away all my life and my--my mom was very important to me and my brother, and he took me to the ballet one day. I'll never forget it. I mean, it's so vivid in my mind. He was very handsome. And it was just me and him and we sat there, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I said, `That's it.' In my little seven-year-old mind, `I'm going to--I'm going on the stage.' And I did.
LAMB: And you've got a whole page here of some of the different roles you've played. Why don't we just go through them quickly...
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and give people an idea of--of what you've done.
Ms. ALEXANDER: That's "Testament" up there where you just pointed.
LAMB: On the left.
Ms. ALEXANDER: That's the--the nuclear holocaust movie. It's about a family dying of radiation poisoning. And then on the lower left is Wendy Wasserstein's play "The Sisters Rosensweig," which was such a hit on Broadway for a year and more with Madeline Kahn, who's since passed away on the--to my left. Then up in the--up there is Ellen--the young Eleanor Roosevelt all dressed in her wedding clothes for the TV miniseries of "Eleanor and Franklin," based on Joe Lash's book. And then to the right there, holding my rifle, I'm Calamity Jane, CBS special movie. And then down in the lower left is James Earl Jones and I, a shot from the movie of "The Great White Hope," which had come from the play which we had been in, which began with an NEA grant.
LAMB: And what--what impact did the black-white couple relationship there have on the public when you did it?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, white bigots really hated it. It was at the height of the Black Power movement in the '60s, and there was--there was a lot of polarization in the country about race relations. As you may remember, civil rights movement and everything had been going on. Martin Luther King was about to be assassinated. And James Earl and myself were the first interracial couple to lie in a bed on stage together in a play. We had our clothes on. And the scene closed with a kiss. I got a lot of hate mail, and I had a couple of death threats through the years. So I understood what it meant I--to be in a controversial piece.
LAMB: What year?
Ms. ALEXANDER: The year of the play was 1968.
LAMB: And the Eleanor Roosevelt role. That you discuss in your book several times.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: How many times have you played Eleanor Roosevelt?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, the miniseries was seven hours long. It was put into two movies. So I played her as the young Eleanor and through the beginning--through the polio epidemic--I mean, polio of FDR to--then the second half was the White House years. So I played her twice and then I've--I reprise it once in a while by reading her letters hither--here or there or...
LAMB: Did you play that in the White House at any time, Eleanor Roosevelt?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yes. When I was NEA chairman, the first lady's office asked if I would play it in the East Room with Ed Herman playing FDR Jr. And we read some letters.
LAMB: What impact on your politics did playing Eleanor Roosevelt have?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, gosh. Eleanor was--what a--what a blessing to be able to play somebody like that, to kind of get--try to get under her skin. And I played her from the age of 16 up until 63. And she meant a lot to me. I mean, she was the ugly duckling who became a swan.

She was always trying to combat injustice and unfairness, and I had learned that--(speaking as Roosevelt) I mean, she spoke with such a strange voice for such a big woman. There were very little dri--diaphragmatic action.

And I found that she was very shy about public speaking until Louis Howe said--you know, FDR's right-hand man and campaign manager--Louis Howe said, `You--you've got to get out there, Eleanor, and--and be the--the legs of your husband.' So she accepted ev--every single speaking engagement one year that she was offered. And this was in the ear--'20s--early '20s. And she overcame her shyness. And so I did the same thing in the '70s and I overcame my shyness.
LAMB: I got to bring up a parochial thing in the book on page 81. `It was an early morning C-SPAN talk show that I encountered my first negative call-in.' I did not host the show, so I don't remember this particularly, but you go on to talk about the experience of being on a call-in show and having a follow-up guest that came on and was critical of you. Explain that experience. I've not--I've not heard you give this, but I'd be interested in what--what was--there was something wrong with it.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, in '93--yeah, it was--it was probably November of '93. I don't know the exact date, but I--or in October. I had--I went to do a call-in radio show on C-SPAN and 9 out of 10 of the calls were totally negative against the agency. And I was cer--shocked by the number, but I thought I was dealing with them pretty well. And then they had--it was Bachus of...
LAMB: Spencer Bachus of Alabama.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. Spencer Bachus on after me, who then trashed the Endowment and at the--in almost the same breath said, `And our poor symphony is going under in--in Birmingham.' And I thought, `Now wait a minute, can't you put those two things together, that the NEA can help the Birmingham Symphony?' By the way, it had already. Because of a few controversial grants? It was the thinking. And I--and I--I was angry at the--at C-SPAN for not putting him on first and--so that I could rebut or point out that this was--and I wasn't going to let that happen again. And I think in the future, it--it--it didn't.
LAMB: Again, all the experiences you had coming here, doing this job, how many years were you in the job?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Four.
LAMB: Do it--if you had it to do over again, coming in armed with the knowledge that you have, that you've put in this book, what would you tell people again to watch out for? Things like call-in shows and visiting members in the Senate...
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...untrustworthy--I mean, you--you basically have said congressmen are untrustworthy.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Not all of them, but a lot of them. Yeah.
LAMB: So do--would you do it again? So you're--knowing what you know, would you do it again?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Knowing what I know now, I would probably do it again and be much better at it.
LAMB: In what way? What would you do differently?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I--you know--remember I quote Alan Simpson, whose advice to me was amazing. He said, `Follow your gut and don't take any crap from anyone.' Well, I was too shy not to take crap from a lot of people, but I did try to follow my gut. And I--I would have stood up more and be more forceful and--I also knew the arguments better. You know, hindsight is terrific because you can--you can say what you--what you would have done, but I had--I have now been around to all 50 states and some of the territories, 200 cities and towns. I know how important the arts are. I know how to speak about it now forcefully.
LAMB: There was a dinner you were--I think it was a dinner. You were--found yourself seated next to George Mitchell.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And he started talking about the Senate. Was this after he was out or wh--when he was still in the Senate?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No, he was still in the Senate. He's...
LAMB: And you quoted him as saying that Jesse Helms was an evil man.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: Were you surprised by that?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I was. It's--it's only because--I'm--I mean, I'm--I'm sure people are evil, but from an actor's point of view, you don't characterize people like that. That's a result term. I don't think people, except very, very weird people, characterize themselves as evil. So I was surprised that George Mitchell talked of him that way. But I--I thought that they must have had really horrendous battles together which I didn't even know about.
LAMB: You also quote him as saying there's no loyalty to the Senate anymore and...
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...he used Bob Packwood as an example. Explain that one.
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think what Mitchell was saying--it was that--at the time of--Packwood's diaries had--had come out and all--all the shenanigans he had been going through. And--and Mitchell was talking about Packwood had not, at that time, resigned yet. And he felt that the Senate, as a body, needed to be preserved from those people who were--were not up to the job of being a senator and representing the greatest ideals of the Senate. And I think he's right about that. I mean, now, you know, people don't--don't leave. I mean, some people have, like Gingrich, Livingston and so on, but there--there is some--we should maintain the integrity of the body--of the body of--so that our ideals and what the Constitution stands for can be upheld and the American public can have some faith and trust in our leaders.
LAMB: Quote, "I can think of no other city where the hypocrisy is so apparent."
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mmm. Yeah. I mean, I was sh...
LAMB: Hollywood? No?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I meant--wasn't I talking about the cheek-by-jowl relationship of...
LAMB: Of the media and the incestuous na--nature of the media and...
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, the media. I thought you--I was talking about as well the--the juxtaposition of immense pockets of poverty next to these well-scrubbed mausoleums.
LAMB: It's all part of that chapter...
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: ...the scene, chapter.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.
LAMB: But what about the media and the incestuous nature of the media?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, the people who--who live and work in the media here in Washington are sitting next to the politicians at dinner and--and everything. The town itself is extremely insular, and you only realize that when you go outside. And that's why I say that most people in the country said--sa--say, `Who cares?' But it's--it's like the only game of the media to--to report what's happening on a daily basis in politics. But I think politicians might be surprised how little attention is really paid to them by those people outside.
LAMB: You also talk about the roasts. We cover them when they have them in this town. And you refer to them as `frat house hijinks, seem sophomoric locker room humor.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. It was.
LAMB: What do you think motivates it?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, letting off steam. Just like frat houses have beer parties on the weekends. Everybody is so--you know, they're--they're pretty civil in their--in here. And--and even--they try to maintain--or they used to try to maintain some civility when they were up on the House floor and the Senate floor. That seems to be di--diminishing a--a bit more in the past decade. But it's letting off steam. That's all. Just saying, `OK. This is all in fun. You are an SOB. Ha, ha, ha,' you know. But they're--they're really pretty dumb jokes.
LAMB: Who are the good people that you met?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, there's lots of good people. I--I don't mean to--to deride all of Washington because there are some great people. I mean, I loved Sidney Yates, congressman from Chicago, who has since retired, in his mid-80s; was the champion of the arts and humanities endowment. Loved them. Could speak eloquently of them. So he was my--my--my best buddy. Louise Slaughter, congresswoman from upstate New York, a chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus, was another person that I thought was just terrific. She--she took no guff from anybody. And Ted Kennedy, of course, in the Senate. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, senator from Kansas. I...
LAMB: So this thing is not political in the sense it's not a party--one party is--is one party better than the other?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No. No. I grew up in a totally Republican environment. My father, my brother, all my parents' friends. I--I have no beef against Republicans, per se, except I don't like special interests telling them only what to do and that they don't have any sense of noblesse oblige anymore. I mean, that--that was what the Republicans were wonderful at, in my--when I grew up. You know, even my own father--if somebody needed a helping hand or a hand up, he was the first to give it. So the Republicans, per se, have never been against the National Endowment for the Arts and have supported it. It was just a new breed of politician that seemed to come in with the 104th Congress. And...
LAMB: Tell us about the birding.
Ms. ALEXANDER: My birding?
LAMB: Your birding. It comes up in--in the book on a couple of occasions.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it's what I do. I discovered that to go bird watching back when I was on location in a distant land or a new city or--was an occupation I could do with just a pair of binoculars. And so it became a passion and it's what I do now virtually every single day. I--I walk for a mile or two or three or four and I look at the birds.
LAMB: There was a--a moment in here where you--there was an article in Parade magazine--and I'm not sure I've got this right here--but talking about the--at one point, you were questioned on your Christian values. And you said that you resented any question on that because, `I grew up a Chwistian--Christian--Christian and I'm very spiritual, very religious.' And then you went on to say, `This last bit about being very religious was a stretch.'
Ms. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why did you feel the need to talk this thing through in the book?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, because I--I feel like I'm a pretty forthright and honest person. And I didn't want people to think that I was one of the--I was go--out there going to church all the time and praying for the salvation of the nation. It--it--that just wasn't me. I mean, I find my spiritual nature totally satisfied in trying to be a decent person and in birding every day.
LAMB: Talk about Zen Buddhism, transcendentalism. Did you try all that?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. As a young person.
LAMB: What happened?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I think we all go on a spiritual quest in life.
LAMB: Are you surprised looking back--you know, going back to Serano--are you surprised how strongly people feel about religion and the arts, and can you ever deal with that issue and expect people to support it?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think we can. I think that it's inevitable that our society, which has been dominated by a white Christian male ethic for so long, is going to have a lot of friction. And it's going to get worse before it gets better.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Because we're a pluralistic society now. We have more religions rising in the United States than ever before. We have more cultures, people from different backgrounds, and they're all bringing something to this mix, but they're going to clash. They're going to bump heads. And one of the first places that they--this becomes apparent is in the arts. And it becomes apparent in the visual arts. You know, it's only a matter of time before some of the Muslims in our country take exception to the fact that most of the mu--the paintings in the great museums are Christian. It's only a matter of time. So we're going to see more and more of this. And what I try to say is, `Look, let's--let's understand that we're going to see more of this and try to deal with it by talking with each other and educate and inform and even trying to embrace some of these other cultures a little bit more.' Doesn't mean to take anything away from our own.
LAMB: Book tour is about over. Where did you write the book?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I wrote it at my home.
LAMB: Where?
Ms. ALEXANDER: On my computer.
LAMB: I mean, where is home?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, in--up north of New York City, about 60 miles.
LAMB: How long did it take you?
Ms. ALEXANDER: About a year.
LAMB: What did you think of that experience?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I loved it.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I love the bubble of my mind. I love people. I like to be with people, so--I still always love the theater and the company of players, but that--that little--being inside your own mind for six hours a day is a very interesting place to be.
LAMB: Where does this piece of art come from?
Ms. ALEXANDER: That was a wonderful cartoonist in--I think it's St. Louis who did this Venus de Milo cartoon of me with my arms chopped off. And underneath it, he's put the NEA.
LAMB: What is your reaction to the book tour, and what is the reaction you've found from people to your book?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I haven't seen the postings on Amazon.com yet, but people tell me that the reader comments are terrific. There haven't been many reviews that have come out yet, but I--I--so far, the people that I know that have read it have enjoyed it immensely because it's entertaining as well, which is what I wanted to--to do.
LAMB: And are you doing acting in this period now?
Ms. ALEXANDER: No, I just finished doing "The Cherry Orchard" at McCarter Theater in Princeton, which was a joy. Doing Chekhov is always the piece de resistance for actors.
LAMB: What are your goals in the future? What do you want to do?
Ms. ALEXANDER: To do a few more classic plays. Maybe...
LAMB: Movies?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, one or two good film roles, but I'm not interested in most of the fare.
LAMB: Our guest has been Jane Alexander. And this is what her--cover of her book looks like. The name of the book is "Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics." Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Brian. It's been a pleasure.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2000. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.