The 37th annual Grammy Awards were held on March 1st, 1995 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The big winners were Tony Bennett and Sheryl Crow and it was the first and last time I got to hang with Selena since she died later that year. One of the subjects of my speech in 1995 had to do with governmental funding for the arts and the proposal before Congress to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Newt Gingrich and a wave of Republican freshmen had taken over the House and Senate in January and Gingrich became the Speaker of the House. His band of merry freshmen followed in lock-step to Newt’s onerous “Contract with (on) America”. Interestingly enough, Newt and I both did stints at West Georgia College in Carrolton, Georgia where Newt was characterized as brilliant history teacher, yet ultimately was denied tenure and bolted.
Jane Alexander was a great friend of everyone in the arts and at the time was Chairwoman of the NEA and Speaker Gingrich had patently refused to meet with her about the Endowment’s future. All of this nonsense just royally pissed me off and as a result I had made the decision to deliver a pointed advocacy speech on the telecast about this and other issues surrounding the support of the arts. Ultimately we used the speech to generate telegrams to Congress by telecasting an 800 number. Bob Lynch, the head of Americans for the Arts and many other fine folks from NAMM and other arts, music and arts advocacy associations helped us assemble phone banks to generate missives from our viewers directly to their congress people to help save the Endowments. Tens of thousands of telegrams were sent!
CBS Television executives always got to see my speeches, and even though I never allowed them to change anything a couple of the executives always wanted to share their “point of view”. The CBS look at Mike’s speech drill in 1995 was very different. I was called in to talk with the newly appointed President of CBS who in no uncertain terms told me I could not deliver the speech I had written. I patiently listened and then told him I had no intention of allowing the network dictate anything to me or the Academy ever, (to be fair, most of the CBS Presidents never did and supported the Academy’s advocacy agenda). However, this dude was livid and barked, “if you give that speech we will turn off your teleprompter”. I asked if I was dismissed and he shooed me and Pierre Cossette, who was with me away like an annoying mosquitos.
Before I went on stage I got to thinking about the prospects of staring into a blank teleprompter screen and took stock of the situation. Since I had written the speech that would merely be an annoyance, but then realized that one thing could present a problem… the most important thing; the 800 number! So, just to be safe I wrote the number on a piece of paper and took it to the podium with me. Watch closely, 2/3rds of the way through the speech you can see when they turn off my teleprompter, forcing me to have to pull out my piece of paper and read the number.
So many people called that night that the phone banks almost crashed, and in the words of many in the Endowments and Arts Agencies that defining action by our Grammy viewers helped save the NEA and NEH!
The extraordinary artists and recordings, we pay tribute to here tonight, remind us of music’s powerful influence in our lives. Music in the arts are healing therapeutic force, that lifts our spirits and unites us as a culture. But the fact is, our culture is at serious risk. Viewers around the world may not be aware that the funding necessary to ensure the survival of our proud legacy of jazz, blues, and virtually all other forms of indigenous American music, is being severely threatened. Our National Endowment for the Arts could have its budget slashed by 40% next year, another 40% the year after, and zeroed out the year after that. And folks, National Public Radio and PBS will most certainly be next. We are here tonight on the brink of becoming the only industrialized nation in the world with absolutely no federal support for the arts. They say it is a matter of money, yet it costs taxpayers about $1 a year to keep jazz, blues, folk, classical music on the public radio airwaves and for the Arts Endowment to bring theater, dance, and music to communities all across America. Is it really about money? You know if the Pentagon tried to operate on the Arts Endowment annual budget, they’d have to shutdown in 5 hours. The arts are an economic plus, The arts are an absolute economic plus. They are second only to aerospace as our most lucrative national export. Despite all of this, our Speaker of the House has yet to agree to meet with the Chairmen of the Arts Endowment. It’s hard to imagine that the Secretary of Commerce or the Secretary of Defense would be treated with such total disregard. Since the arts and humanities endowments were founded by partisan support 30 years ago, they have enjoyed the support of every single President, Republican or Democrat. Our leaders knew that politicizing our arts agenda would cripple the accomplishments and make America a leading cultural force. We must not allow the arts to be politicized, privatized, commercialized, sanitized, neutralized, or zeroed out. You know artists, you know artists, whether it is musicians or visual artists, they push the envelope, they stretch everything to the limits. Controversy is both the part of the price and the value of artistic freedom. Lest we forget one of the endowments most controversial grants was the funding of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Today it’s the most heralded and most visited tourist attraction in our nation’s capital. To see to it that the arts retain their proper place within our society, you folks at home grab a pencil and I’ll tell you what we can do, on Tuesday, March 14th, a campaign of unprecedented scope will be waged. It’s called the National Call In Day for Arts and Culture. This campaign begins tonight by your calling 1-800-225-2007, for options that will see to it that your congressional representatives know that you support the continued funding for these vital programs. When Winston Churchill was asked, right in the middle of the World War II, to cut the British Arts Council budget, he didn’t waste any words, “Hell no!”, said Churchill, “what have we been fighting for?!” Folks without arts education, (clapping) just a little courage is all we need from these folks, folks without art education, the Arts Endowment, music and the love of it will no longer be a cultural treasure, but more and more a privilege tied to personal, family, and class economics. Lets join together tonight in a triumphant effort to keep the arts alive. Our very culture depends on it. Thank you very much. (clapping) Thank you. (Clapping) Thank you very much. (clapping) Thank you. (clapping) Thanks a lot.