I am now officially the Honorable Terry Teachout, having been sworn in this morning (together with Gerard Schwarz and James Ballinger) as a member of the National Council on the Arts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dropped by to administer the oath. It was a near-run thing, for Justice O’Connor didn’t know when she agreed to do the honors that she and her Supreme Court brethren would be hearing the Terri Schiavo case today. “We had a busy morning!” she said as she arrived, still wearing her judicial robes. I’d never seen her in person, and was surprised by how short she was. Charismatic, too: she’s engaging, energetic, and has amazing eyes, dark and snapping.
The oath she administered is the one specified in Section 3331 of the United States Code:
An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
I’d never taken an oath remotely like that–in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever taken any oath before today–and as I repeated the words after Justice O’Connor, I suddenly realized that my voice was on the verge of cracking. Maybe it was because I’d looked up and seen my brother standing just fifteen feet away, snapping a picture. On the other hand, it wasn’t the first time in the past couple of days that my emotions had been engaged so strongly. Under Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, public sessions of the National Council on the Arts always begin with a performance of an appropriate piece of music, and today we heard the finale of Walter Piston’s Fourth Symphony in a recording conducted by Gerard Schwarz, who was seated next to me. My eyes filled with tears as I listened, the same way they’d grown moist the day before as we watched a video clip of Ethan Stiefel and Alessandra Ferri dancing the pas de deux from Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. That’s one of the biggest differences between a meeting of the National Council on the Arts and one of, say, the board of directors of Citibank. Great art has a way of slipping in under the radar and filling you with extraordinary sensations.
As soon as Justice O’Connor finished swearing us in, she smiled and said, “Now, go do a good job!” To which Jim Ballinger (who knows her) instantly responded, “You, too!” That brought down the house, and the four of us went back to work.
I could tell you all sorts of other things about today’s meeting, but I’ll pass on just one detail. Gordon Davidson, the outgoing artistic director of Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, just finished serving a term as a member of the NCA. He had to miss his final meeting, so he came to our first one to say his goodbyes, which consisted of an elegant little speech in which he said something which struck me so forcibly that I scribbled it down on my notepad: “I liked being here because I love asking questions. I think the best art asks the best questions.” Me, too.
Chairman Gioia gaveled the proceedings to a close at noon, after which my brother and I said our goodbyes, jumped into a cab, went back to his hotel, changed clothes, caught a Tourmobile bus in front of the National Air and Space Museum, and spent the rest of the day looking at monuments. This is my brother’s first trip to Washington, and it’s been ages since I last did any tourist-type stuff here. I’d forgotten how stirring an impression the Lincoln Memorial makes, even when it’s full of noisy tourists. Once again, I caught myself choking up as I read the so-familiar words carved into the wall: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Washington has a way of doing that to you, too.
Now we’re back in our hotel room, worn out from walking and preparing for what I sincerely hope will be a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’ll be visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the National Archives, and whatever else sounds good, weather permitting. I’ll be returning to New York on Saturday, and I expect to be more worn out still–and inordinately happy. It’s been an extraordinary week, in all sorts of ways….
One last thing: Dana introduced me this morning as “a critic, biographer, and blogger,” adding that I’m “the first blogger ever to serve on the National Council on the Arts.” How about that?