In his first interview since resigning from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yosi Sergant blames both the White House and right-wing media for the NEA Propaganda Scandal, as the controversial August 10th conference call has come to be known.
The article, riddled with factual errors and omissions characteristic of a student and/or mainstream media, lays out a revisionist’s version of what happened behind the scenes of the scandal. During the interview, conducted by a journalism graduate student and admitted “close friend” of the former White House appointee, Sergant states that he was called to a meeting in the West Wing at the end of his four-month stint in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. The White House, fully aware of his role as an art activist during Obama’s election campaign, offered Sergant two jobs. One was to continue at the White House, and the other was as the Communications Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. Sergant selected the NEA.
President Obama and Yosi Sergant
“I think [the West Wing] made a bad decision to put me in a job without giving me any kind of guidance, not providing me with any kind of mentorship,” said Sergant in the interview. He continued, “That was a bad decision. I’d never worked in government before.”
However the White House knew where Sergant’s expertise resided, and how he would potentially put it to use in an arts position. He was the promoter behind the now famous Obama Hope poster. Sergant indicated in the interview that he was given some direction by the White House in his new position at the NEA. “The idea was that Yosi would help pave the way for the new director’s arrival,” wrote Hillel Aron, referring to Rocco Landesman, incoming Chairman of the NEA. On paving the way, Sergant said, “I started working on things that I knew were happening, that I thought would be safe… and I was wrong.”
And, frankly, why wouldn’t he have thought it to be safe – he was working with the White House at the time. The project that Sergant was referring to was United We Serve, a national service initiative orchestrated by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Among the many controversial comments during the call, Sergant stated, “I would encourage you to pick something, whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service. And then my ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative communities utilities and bring them to the table.”
It was this encouragement, at a time when town halls had gone nuclear over the issue of health care, which ultimately put Sergant in hot water.
Following a statement made in my first article regarding the invite coming from the NEA, the Washington Times reported that Sergant claimed he did not send out the invite. After revealing that the invite I received was in fact sent directly from Sergant, on September 1st the Washington Times published an article entitled “Official Dishonesty.” Aron reports that Sergant called the White House the next day asking if he should resign. Sergant stated, “They did not think that what I did merited the response of the media.”
However, at the time Sergant contacted the White House, they were unaware of exactly what the conference call revealed about their arts effort. In an email marked “Importance: High” and sent on September 11th, Kalpen Modi, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, asked, “Do either of you have a recording or transcript of the CNCS call you did with Yosi & NEA on 8/10.” The response from two federal officials at the Corporation was that they did not have a transcript or a recording of the call:
The full transcript was released on September 21st, revealing controversial conduct by not only Yosi Sergant, but Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Engagement, and Nell Abernathy of the Corporation for National and Community Service. In reaction to the conduct on the call, including comments I highlighted by a White House employee Buffy Wicks, the following day the administration backpedaled from an earlier claim that I had “misconstrued the purpose” of the call. The administration issued new guidelines, as reported by ABC News’ Jake Tapper, “to prevent such a call from ever happening again.” The memo, written by White House Counsel Gregory Craig, provided new guidelines to all federal agencies for public outreach meetings. “We regret any comments on the call that may have been misunderstood or troubled other participants,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton in an issued statement. “We are fully committed to the NEA’s historic mission, and we will take all steps necessary to ensure that there is no further cause for questions or concerns about that commitment.” This White House statement appeared to concede that the effort was outside of the NEA’s original purpose.
To date, Buffy Wicks and Nell Abernathy still remain in their positions while Sergant has been left with Michelin stains.
Sergant seems to disagree with the White House’s actions. “I don’t believe that what I did was wrong,” Sergant stated in his interview with Aron. “I believe that what I did came at a time when all the focus was on health care reform, and [that’s] where they needed to put their time and energy… could they have stood up for me if they wanted to? Sure. Am I worth the political capital? They had just lost Van Jones.”
Why would Sergant feel as if he did something wrong – he was in fact working with the White House on this arts effort.
Writer Hillel Aron and Yosi Sergant
The writer and Sergant claim that there was no political advocacy on the call. However, both the NEA and the White House have released separate statements stating that some of the language was “not appropriate” and admitting that there were “appearance issues,” respectively. During the interview Sergant stated that he never mentioned “Public Option” in his encouragement, but rather offered “blood drive” posters as an example of the type of art that he hoped would come out of the meeting. But that does not pass the smell test for what actually happened. The example that Sergant and the other federal employees highlighted during the conference call was a Rock the Vote project designed to “engage young people, in particular, on the issue of a new environmental movement.” Given that the call participants were avid Obama supporters, the art that came out of the meeting was, unsurprisingly, highly political in nature – a fact that cannot be changed by a friend attempting to rewrite history. Also omitted from the story was the fact that after resigning, one of the first projects Sergant worked on with another activist call participant was called “Public Option Please” that attacked Joe Lieberman’s wife in hopes of getting his vote for the senate’s version of health care reform.
The writer also claims that Sergant “simply copy / pasted the text from a United We Serve e-mail.” However FOIA documents clearly show that Sergant helped develop and edit the invite with Nell Abernathy, a fact that Aron’s graduate journalism professors may like to know if he is being graded on accuracy. If Aron’s article was written for his fiction professors, I retract this criticism.
I’ve stated throughout my articles that the White House was ultimately to blame for this controversial arts effort. The administration was fully aware of Sergant’s activist affinity and placed him in a position to put that skill to work. Unfortunately, political activity at a federal agency, indirectly or otherwise, is prohibited. The fact that the NEA and the White House threw Sergant under the bus is not a fact lost on the person left smelling like rubber. When asked by Aron if he thought someone from the White House was going to stick up for him, Sergant responded, “I knew they wouldn’t.”
It would appear through these new statements, Mr. Sergant, in part, agrees with me that the White House has mud on their hands – albeit for different reasons. The only question left for Sergant is, how much longer will he let the White House affect his integrity and blame him for actions he was appointed to perform.