Senator Coburn Trolls The Arts With Annual P.R. Ploy

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments

In the song “The Book Report” from the musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt struggles to complete her homework assignment: 100 words on Peter Rabbit. Falling short, she concludes it thusly: “And they were very very very very very very happy to be home. The very very very end.”

Senator Coburn's WastebookIn honor of this blatant effort to reach a designated threshold without utilizing meaningful content, I would like to present the very very very first “Lucy Van Pelt Award for Verbal and Political Padding” to Senator Tom Coburn (R, Oklahoma), for the 2014 edition of his much-publicized “Wastebook.” For those who haven’t heard of it, the Wastebook is Coburn’s perennial compilation of excessive and/or unnecessary federal spending. It tends to generate a good bit of attention for its most absurd items in all manner of media. A careful parsing of Coburn’s annual lists may reveal a partisan bent and a truckful of snark, though in reviewing the past few years of reports, I did note that he wasn’t above calling attention to what he deemed wasteful spending in his home state too.

The new report, on its comic book meets tabloid cover, trumpets $25 billion in government waste in only 100 examples. Without being deeply grounded in every item he cites, I must admit that a few do make one wonder. However, I have to chide Coburn for a few of his 2014 examples, specifically those derived from National Endowment for the Arts grants. Alongside “Swedish Massages for Rascally Rabbits” and “Watching Grass Grow,” Coburn calls out:

  • “Teen Zombie Sings, Tries To Get A Date To The Dance” ($10,000 for the musical Zombie in Love at Oregon Children’s Theatre)
  • “Colorado Orchestra Targets Youth With Stoner Symphony” ($15,000 for a Colorado Symphony concert thematically linked to the state’s newly legal industry, but performing standard symphonic works)
  • “Roosevelt and Elvis Make A Hallucinatory Pilgrimage To Graceland” ($10,000 to The TEAM for their play RoosevElvis, to be seen this winter at the COIL Festival)
  • “Bruce Lee Play Panned As Promoting Racial Stereotypes” ($70,000 to Signature Theatre Company for the production of David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu)
The TEAM’s RoosevElvis (Photo by Sue Kessler)

Libby King and Kristen Sieh in The TEAM’s RoosevElvis (Photo by Sue Kessler)

While Coburn surely hasn’t seen or read any of these productions, his efforts to make these minimal grants into shameful instances of government funds gone awry relies only on inevitably reductive synopses and selectively quotes from the odd negative review as if to justify his point about these NEA funded projects. The headlines are of course chosen to make the work itself sound as absurd as possible. Worth noting: Coburn seems to have a particular distaste for children’s theatre, having also called out $10,000 for the production of the musical Mooseltoe at the Centralia Cultural Society in Illinois in the 2013 Wastebook. There are other arts related items in the 2014 report, but they’re actually funded outside of the NEA, the largest being $90 million for the State Department’s Cultural Exchange programs, targeted by Coburn for a handful of unconventional performers he selected from a much larger pool, a rigged argument at best.

Coburn’s increased role as an arts critic is no doubt due to the mileage he got out of his 2013 list’s inclusion of a $697,000 grant to the theatre company The Civilians for their musical The Great Immensity, about climate change. Obviously the subject matter was a hot-button for the Senator, and I imagine that numerous arts groups must be envious of the sum (far in excess of what groups typically get from the NEA), but Coburn fails to take into account the respect accorded to the work of The Civilians in artistic circles – and arts groups should take note that the largesse came not from the NEA, but from the National Science Foundation, due to the specific subject. It may be a bigger and easier target for Coburn, but it’s not a worthy one.

Whatever the politics and bias behind it, I’m willing to grant that there’s some value in Coburn’s list, such as highlighting the famous Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere or calling out excessive spending on the incompetent overhaul of government computer systems. But his four NEA-based examples this year are simply padding, as they represent only 0.00042% of his report’s dollar total, but 4% of his report. It’s just another example of a politician attacking the arts as an easy target, when there are bigger and more essential fish to fry.

Cole Horibe in Kung Fu at Signature Theatre (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cole Horibe in Kung Fu at Signature Theatre (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Regarding the four “wasteful” grants in question, I can offer a personal opinion on only one, namely Kung Fu, which was ambitious and perhaps not completely realized in its debut at Signature. But it was – and is – a worthy project by an artist whose work is always deserving of support. By the way, David Hwang has told me there’s more work to be done on the piece and he’s recently made public note of plans to remount it soon to implement further changes. When that happens, I’ll do my best to invite Senator Coburn to Kung Fu as my guest though he may be out of the public eye and not up to it – he’s leaving Congress at the end of the year for health reasons, and this year’s list may be his parting shot.

Of course, health permitting, Coburn could keep producing the Wastebook after leaving office, if he has a real commitment to exposing government waste. But I’m willing to bet that he won’t. Why do I say that? Because surely most people realize that his annual screed is produced by his staff, maybe even eager young interns, not by Coburn’s own personal research and writing efforts. Come to think of it, I wonder how much the Wastebook cost the U.S. taxpayer each year, in staff research and writing time? I suspect it’s more than the federal government gave to Mooseltoe.

P.S. Let’s all go see The TEAM’s RoosevElvis when it plays New York’s P.S. 122 in January 2015 and each decide for ourselves whether the $10,000 from the NEA was well spent. I, for one, wasn’t aware of the show, but I’m now looking forward to it. Gee, thanks Senator Coburn!


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