On every corner in Washington, it suddenly seems, there’s now a
Starbuck’s, a Boston Chicken and a Republican committee chairman. Inside
the otherwise unchanged capitol, the Republican agenda makes its inexorable
progress from House committee to the House floor to the Senate to Clinton’s
uncertain pen. A few of the bigger cars have been derailed–term limits, the
balanced-budget amendment–but the locomotive of federal downsizing
relentlessly chugs on. This slash-burn-and-gloat agenda, the Republicans
will tell you, grows out of forty years in the wilderness, generations
harboring their resentments of the welfare state. You know the buzzwords:
bloated government, hidebound bureaucracy, career politicians out of touch
with the common man, whoever he is exactly.

Yet for all their federalist dogma, the new big-government big-game hunters
have picked some strange quarry. Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley? Ernie
and Bert? They’re not just hopelessly tiresome as targets, they seem well
beside the point. Cut the NEA, public TV and all your other favorite
pipelines to allegedly left-wing causes and you still haven’t done diddly to
the deficit. The fact is the Newtoids have another agenda: winning the
Culture War. It’s not just getting government off the backs of business they
want; it’s getting government back into the business of deciding what counts
as valid art, entertainment, education and history.

The best recent example of this mentality is the Enola Gay battle. You
remember the Smithsonian’s canceled exhibit for the golden anniversary of the
nuking of Japan? But exhibit or no (the show was planned for May), the
landmark day is approaching, and with it a spate of stories rehearsing the
controversy. So a quick primer:

Originally, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, mecca to Washington
tourists, planned a show about Hiroshima and the legacy of the a-bomb. The
centerpiece was the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the Big One back
on August 6, 1945. The idea was pretty basic: to assess, with the perspective
of history, the whys and wherefores of the historic event. But veterans’
groups thought the whole shebang too pro-Japanese, so the curators
capitulated and let the American Legion review a sanitized script.

All squared away? Not quite. Peace groups then attacked the rewrite.
(Among the deleted items: a photo of a watch, its hands frozen in time at the
moment of the blast.) More wrangling ensued. Petty carping about what the
death toll would have been had we invaded Japan. (Was the bombing worth it
to save 20,000 American lives? How about 500,000?) Finally, in January,
Gingrich swaggers in, his retinue of kulturkampf kamikazes behind him.
Eighty-one congressmen, mostly Republicans, call for the head of the museum’s
director, Martin Harwit. The Speaker himself has a tete-a-tete with Smithsonian
chief Michael Heyman, and a few phone calls later the whole show is canned.
(Heyman denies that Gingrich’s calls tipped the balance.) Now all those
cherry blossom tourists will get to see is one big hunk-o’-metal, the Enola
Gay airplane’s fuselage itself–cool for 10-year-old boys, but hardly a
history lesson.

The vets did have a point. But even if you bristle at the self-satisfied
hindsight of the Blame America Firsters, and the casting of easy moral
judgments without historical context, you’ve got to feel a little queasy over
the Enola Gay exhibit. Anyone who reviews the record with an open mind has
got to come to the conclusion that (a) the incineration of two major
metropolises deserves some commemoration; and (b) there were reasons besides
saving American lives involved in the decision. (Limiting the Soviet Union’s
postwar reach, for one. You might think that’s a good end or a bad one, but
then-Secretary of State James F. Byrnes sure had it in the forefront of his
mind.) Is conceding this point tantamount to “siding” with the Japanese?
Hardly. A dispassionate evaluation of American motives doesn’t mean ignoring
Japanese aggression or atrocities, disrespecting our veterans, or trotting
out Harry Truman for a war crimes trial.

Amid the brouhaha, a Washington Post reporter went to talk to Paul W.
Tibbets, Jr., the man who dropped the Hiroshima bomb. His thoughts on his
life’s most important act: “I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over it, and I
never will.” Not a one? Was it all in a day’s work? Maybe Tibbets’s
psychological survival depends on this kind of denial. But do we need to
impose it on the whole nation? Losing a little sleep due to some moral
grappling isn’t the same as believing you did wrong. In fact, it’s probably
the only way to come to grips with your actions.

The meddlers who shut down the show don’t like the gray tones of moral
inquiry either. Simplify–that’s their credo on everything from government
to art. When Jesse Helms quips that he doesn’t like modern art, he likes good
art, he’s not just thumbing his nose at the avant garde, he’s esteeming
simplicity over complexity. Abstract expressionism just can’t compare to
pretty landscapes. The corollary is that art should not stimulate the
intellect but reinforce American Values: Norman Rockwell over Warhol’s Maos.
Just so, the point of history is not to provoke contemplation in the pursuit
of truth, but to transmit a simple political message: the legend of Jimmy
Doolittle over the real-life details of jockeying with the USSR for
geopolitical position. This is the Gingrich view of history: fodder for
a political agenda. (Some prefer the term “propaganda.”) Yes, Newt’s an
ex-history prof, and for all we know Harvard may soon become known as the
Reinhardt College of the North. Yes, he likes to invoke “ideas” and has gotten
ample credit for it from the press. And yes, he plays the role of court
intellectual for the Republicans far more convincingly than, say, Al D’Amato.
But Gingrich doesn’t really like ideas the way a scholar does; what he likes
is the idea of ideas. That’s why he’s into dinosaurs, laptops, cyberspace,
outer space, big hunk-o’-metal airplanes–the 10-year-old boy’s list of
what’s cool.

The emotionalism of cultural battles like Hiroshima grips the American psyche
and encourages us to choose sides. The political animal bows to the pressure
and looks for clarity; the intellectual animal resists and looks for
ambiguities. So far, for all his embrace of ideas, Gingrich has yet to show
that he sees them not as a tool in political warfare but as an end in
themselves.