Leach Reported Choice to Lead NEH

White House poised to tap former Republican lawmaker from Iowa to head humanities endowment; Leach endorsed Obama and co-founded Congressional Humanities Caucus.
May 26, 2009

James A. Leach's name emerges just about any time that Democratic politicians are contemplating nominating Republicans for important jobs; in recent weeks, the former Iowa Congressman has been discussed as a candidate for U.S. ambassador to China (a position that went to another Republican) and as an appointee to a federal panel investigating the country's financial meltdown.

Leach, a moderate Republican who endorsed President Obama and earned a speaking slot at last summer's Democratic convention as a result, is indeed poised to join the new president's administration: as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, according to several sources familiar with the choice.

Although Leach's party line crossing support for then-candidate Obama may have put him in the running for jobs in a new administration eager to show its bipartisanship, he has strong credentials for the NEH job.

He co-founded the Congressional Humanities Caucus during his years in Congress, fought to save the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from elimination during the Bush administration, and was widely seen as a champion for the arts and humanities, receiving the Sidney R. Yates Award for Distinguished Public Service to the Humanities from the National Humanities Alliance in 2005, along with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), with whom he co-chaired the humanities caucus.

In an e-mail message responding to a request for confirmation of his pending nomination on Friday, Leach, who is now the John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said that he was "not in a position to comment." An NEH spokeswoman also said agency officials could not comment.

But Leach's name has been identified as the administration's choice on blogs like Judith H. Dobrzynski's at Arts Journal, and leaders in the humanities world describe the selection as a "done deal."

Leach spent 30 years in Congress, where he developed expertise in a wide range of areas, from banking to foreign relations to the arts and humanities. He was part of the sizable group of moderate Republicans who were swept out of office in the 2006 midterm elections, amid widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush.

Since then, he served as interim director of the Institute of Politics and a lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and is now at Princeton, his alma mater.

R. Bruce Craig, who spent many years as a watchdog for federal humanities issues while at the National Coalition for History, said that if Leach is nominated, he will be a "great choice.... He was a true friend to the NEH as a Congressman, and did much to help the Humanities Alliance and also to promote the NHPRC" when the Bush administration sought to eliminate it.

President Obama appointed Carole M. Watson as the endowment's acting chairman in February, and he has proposed a small budget increase for the agency for the 2010 fiscal year.


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