In the preface to his new and fascinating memoir of Nancy Hanks,[1] the much-admired second chairman (1969-77) of the National Endowment for the Arts, Michael Straight, her deputy during her years in office, makes a proud claim for their joint place in the history of our Republic: “We had worked together,” he writes, “to create a democratic culture at a high level in America.” While one would hardly want to claim felicity for the use of the word “create” in a context of bureaucratic policy making, fulfilling the role of cultural leadership on behalf of a proud nation is a goal neither trivial nor ignoble. To render productive the inevitable tension between a mass democracy flexible enough to accommodate the pressures of necessary change and a high culture based upon enduring standards of content and form is a task only the...


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