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Jon Peede, Trump's Nominee To Lead NEH, Makes His Case On Why Agency Should Exist


President Trump has chosen a leader for an agency that he tried to eliminate. The White House proposed cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the NEH. Instead, Congress increased NEH funding in the spending bill that Trump signed into law last week. Earlier this month, the president nominated Jon Parrish Peede to lead the organization. And he joins us now in the studio. Welcome.

JON PARRISH PEEDE: Thank you, Ari. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: So why don't you make the case now? Why should the NEH continue to exist?

PEEDE: Essentially, we have for more than half a century invested in the most essential humanities projects across the country. We give out some 800 grants a year. And what's remarkable is that when you think of essential documents - we're talking about Thomas Jefferson's papers, Albert Einstein's papers, Edison - we're a part of that. But also, when we come up on the celebration of the suffrage movement and what that stood for, we're doing that on behalf of the American people.

But there are hundreds and hundreds of grants that honestly aren't going to be national news, but teachers in the classroom just teaching American civics in a more informed way. So that's what our agency does. And when you turn on your TV and you see Ken Burns with his Vietnam film most recently or Civil War, our funding has been catalytic and essential to that.

SHAPIRO: Just to get specific, you say the NEH is involved in the suffrage anniversary, doing that for the American people. What specifically is the NEH doing?

PEEDE: We all have organizations across the country that are going to come and tell how the women's right to vote came to pass in their community. And that's the point that I would really want to make, is it's not the federal government saying, this is what we want to see. It's local communities. It's local universities, libraries, saying, this is our story within that larger story.

SHAPIRO: There are parts of the government where President Trump has chosen leaders who vocally opposed the mission of their agency like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That's not you. You've been acting head of the NEH. Before that you worked at the National Endowment for the Arts. The humanities are your field. So tell me about being nominated to lead this agency by the same president who tried to eliminate this agency.

PEEDE: Well, one thing I would say is it's a humbling experience to be nominated by your president to serve in this capacity. And, yes, the president has recommended me as somebody who spent the last 25 years of my life in the arts and humanities. And I think what he's saying with this nomination is if the agency is to exist, then he wants someone to lead it who knows how to do it, who's seasoned in experience and is going to be a good steward of the tax dollars.

SHAPIRO: In the past the, NEH has become a political lightning rod at times. Republicans especially have criticized grants to controversial projects. How do you anticipate navigating those rapids?

PEEDE: Well, I think two things. One, have people that have an understanding of the public responsibility with our funding, that we are funding on behalf of the tax dollars. And also for our panelists to stay very close to our guidelines. Our guidelines are very clear. We don't fund public advocacy, for example. We don't fund projects that ask for change in federal legislation. But I think also, it's about getting out and explaining some of our decisions.

Our sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, funded the design competition for the Vietnam War Memorial. Think about how important that is as an icon and experience in American culture. At the time I can tell you it was not as popular. So sometimes you're making good decision, and you have well-intentioned critics. And you have to weather that. And so I'm trying to make sure, you know, with Congress, the American public and the administration that we have sufficient goodwill, that people understand our decision making.

SHAPIRO: So to be clear, are you hoping to avoid funding projects that ignite controversy or to fund the worthiest projects and take on whatever controversy may come?

PEEDE: My goal is to fund worthy projects consistent with our mandate. Our founding legislation said democracy demands wisdom and visions from the citizens. I think that's more or less an exact quote. So it's not about whether you're avoiding controversy or not. It's about, are you making wise decisions?

SHAPIRO: Jon Parrish Peede, President Trump's nominee to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, thanks for coming in today.

PEEDE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUT CHEMIST'S "THE GARDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 30, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Jon Peede's name as John.