President Obama has nominated former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Leach, a Republican, served eastern Iowa in congress for 30 years and, after losing a reelection bid in 2006, he became a college professor. If Leach is confirmed by the senate for the post of National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, he will leave behind his faculty position at Princeton University and move to Washington, D.C.
"I love teaching and I love academia and it just happened that this particular post was quite alluring to me," Leach says. "It is a post very central to higher education and to teaching in America."
The National Endowment for the Humanities makes grants to cultural institutions and to individual scholars to promote literature, history, philosophy and religion in American life.
"The emphasis that I think you can expect from me will be one of trying to uplift the vocabulary of American discourse," Leach says of his approach to the job for which he’s been nominated. "That is to, as a society, celebrate differences in thought — whether they be conservative, whether they be liberal – but they don’t become celebrated because other thinking may be wrong, just that other thinking may not fit a given kind of circumstance in the way that one might wish."
Obama has asked congress to provide over $170 million to the agency next year.
"The humanities are many things and they’re different for different people, but I think in difficult times, they’re particularly important," Leach says. "It’s important for America to understand its own culture. It’s important for America to understand foreign cultures."
Leach says the president’s aides have told him Obama wants to emphasize the work of the N.E.H.
"He is, in some ways, the first of what might be considered philosophical and moral humanist to be in the White House in quite a while and so this is an area of his great interest and, frankly, is one that I share," Leach says. "…The term secular humanist has negative connotations for many Americans because it implies a concern for values that are outside of religion and so I make a distinction between a moral humanist and a secular humanist…I do believe that this is a deeply moral president and morality, in the eyes of many, springs from a religious kind of opinion."
Leach was among those in congress who pressed the Bush Administration to take steps to protect some of the antiquities which were endangered in Iraq.
Leach’s friends say both Leach and his wife have been life-long advocates for the arts. Pete Jeffries, a political consultant who worked on Leach’s 2002 campaign, describes the Leach home as "a mix between a library with thousands of books and a museum with unique pieces of art displayed on the walls, shelves, counters and tables."
Leach, who once headed the U.S. House Banking Committee, says he was earlier offered other posts in the new administration, but he declined those jobs — and he isn’t saying which positions he was offered.
"I’d been given several offers of financial positions earlier on," is all Leach will say. When pressed for details, Leach added: "I would never go into that. That would be unfair to those who have come to hold them."
Leach was among a handful of Republicans who publicly endorsed Obama’s bid for the White House in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election.