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Former congressman tackling the nation's lack of civility
Republican Jim Leach, now a member of the Obama Cabinet, wants to give voice to the center.

Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was in Maine last week as part of a 50-state "civility" tour. Leach is concerned that good civic dialogue is breaking down in the highly partisan and often inflammatory rhetoric that pervades current political discussion.

Leach knows of what he speaks. He was a Republican congressman from Iowa for 30 years. He earned a reputation in Congress for intelligence, competence and the knack of bridging divisions among colleagues. Unfortunately for him, social conservatives hijacked the party process in Iowa and engineered the downfall of this Republican moderate in 2006.

In the 2008 election Leach supported candidate Barack Obama, and now he finds himself as one of Obama's "bipartisan" nominees at NEH.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is not a large organization, as governmental organizations go, but it is influential mostly through the grants it provides to state humanities councils to foster grass-roots programs to advance the humanities in the broadest sense.

The Obama administration has given NEH a significant boost in spending. Leach is committed to putting this funding to work in a way that will advance more "civil dialogue."

Leach came to Maine as one of his first states to visit because of the "Literature and Medicine" program developed here.

Like the best of NEH's programs, it is deceptively simple and resolutely "grass roots." In specific hospitals the program brings together disparate groups of employees, doctors, nurses and a range of other hospital staff to discuss a piece of literature – often about illness, death and the nature of human relationships.

The program has been so successful that it is now being offered in 26 states.

Leach visited the Veterans Affairs hospital in Togus to see the program in action. While there he participated in a reading and discussion of the poem "The Ship Pounding" by Donald Hall.

Hall's poem is a contemporary account of a wife's battle with cancer as told by her husband. It compares the hospital to a great ship: "the huge vessel that heaves water month after month, without leaving port, without moving a knot, without arrival or destination, its great engines pounding."

The characterization of the hospital in the poem – huge and impersonal – gave rise to thoughtful discussion of how the hospital experience is viewed from the patient and caregiver perspective.

Such discussions are, in some ways, small diversions in what must be an intense routine for a vast and often understaffed hospital like Togus. And yet, such programs do make a difference. They do contribute to a "civil dialogue" as the tributes to this program attest.

Typical is this comment from a hospital administrator: "Surgeons commune with nurses from our long-term care facility; secretaries speak with equal voice to administrators; laboratory technicians give their viewpoint to obstetricians. In short ("Literature and Medicine") has greatly improved communication among employees and with patients."

Leach often quotes William Butler Yeats' prophetic poem "The Second Coming," in which Yeats suggests that the center cannot hold when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Leach's mission for the NEH is to support programs like "Literature and Medicine" to give more support to the "center." It is a daunting task.

We are currently in the midst of a debate on national health care reform that is often rancorous and seldom illuminating. The debate is over-full of posturing and so far shows few signs of authentic attempts to find common ground, particularly from Republicans.

When viewing this kind of national debate and comparing it to the kinds of programs that the NEH is supporting in the cause of civil dialogue, the NEH approach has a David against Goliath feeling. It is a boutique agency at the edges of epic political struggle.

And yet there is a grass-roots quality of the NEH approach seen in the "Literature and Medicine" program that gives me hope.

As Americans we retain an instinct to make things better. This instinct has been dulled by the intensity of political dialogue as amplified by news media in all its forms.

Nonetheless, the fundamental instinct for good remains, and it is precisely the kind of programs that organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities support that keep this instinct alive.

Bravo to Jim Leach, the NEH and the Maine Humanities Council.