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Gary Cole is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he was a philosophy major and "an indifferent quarter-miler."

Cole co-founded CoHo Productions with Bob Holden, a schoolteacher. Lori Hardwick, Sen. Gordon Smith's chief fundraiser, sat on the board of CoHo.

Cole wrote Body Hold, the story of an expatriate Brit caught in a Third World revolution and the first play CoHo produced. He later led the fundraising effort to build a permanent home for CoHo, which has produced 17 plays.

Besides Poona the Fuckdog, plays StageDirect ([link] ) has filmed include The Magnificent Welles, a critically acclaimed take on Orson Welles, and Haint, the story of a Tennessee town haunted by a ghost. The company has sold about 500 copies of Poona, which retails for $19.95.

StageDirect's films of Poona, Straight and Welles played on consecutive evenings at Cinema 21 in the summer of 2002.

Tony Chauveaux, a lawyer and director of the Texas Arts Commission, ultimately got the NEA grants job on Sept. 30, 2004. The NEA has an annual budget of $121 million.

The Chicago Reader published a briefer version of Cole's story on Sept. 28, 2004.



Gary Cole found out the hard way that Republican politics and fringe theater don't mix.


njaquiss at wweek.com

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on Bush's behalf--to serving as a board member of mortgage giant Fannie Mae (as Bush Oregon 2000 campaign chair Molly Bordonaro did until this May) to low-level civil-service posts.

Presidential appointments are increasingly political and tightly controlled by the White House, according to James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia. "Appointments were intended to help manage the executive branch, but they often degenerate into a way of rewarding friends," says Pfiffner, who has written about the appointment process.

Cole learned that the No. 3 job at the National Endowment for the Arts--deputy chairman for grants and awards, which entailed doling out about $60 million annually--was available. Such a position, Cole thought, would allow him to combine his theater, legal and business backgrounds.

"This sounded like a fabulous job," Cole says. "But the first question out of my mouth to Lavey, Molly Bordonaro and John Easton was, 'Is StageDirect going to be a problem?'"

Cole knew the NEA's support of controversial art had riled conservative politicians over the past two decades--particularly for its sponsorship of such controversial exhibits as Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 photos of gay sadomasochists and Andres Serrano's 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in his urine.

The first President Bush named Oregonian John Frohnmayer head of the agency in 1989, for instance, only to fire him three years later under pressure from Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan.

Cole says his pals reassured him. "They said, 'No, this is arts; it's one thing if you're running for elected office,' but as Molly said, 'It's not as if you put a crucifix in piss.'" (Bordonaro did not return WW's calls.)

Cole moved forward. Gordon Smith, who had been briefed on Poona by Easton, wrote a powerful letter of recommendation on April 4 to the White House personnel office. "I sincerely hope that you give Gary Cole your highest consideration for the position of Deputy Chairman of Grants and Awards," Smith wrote. "Gary's name may also be familiar, as he served as George W. Bush's 2000 campaign Oregon Victory Finance Chair."

In his letter, Smith referred to StageDirect as "a unique company which specializes in capturing contemporary theater on digital video." Two other local Republican heavyweights, Ambassador Swindells and restaurateur Bill McCormick, also wrote letters on Cole's behalf.

On May 20, Cole went to Washington to interview with Chairman Dana Gioia and other top NEA staff. He also met with the White House personnel office, which is responsible for the political vetting of potential appointees.

Asked whether he had ever done anything that might embarrass the president, Cole recalls he said he had "produced theater for grown-ups and that some of the StageDirect and CoHo productions had included nudity and profanity, including profanity in the titles."

Cole says the interviewer replied, "So you're saying that you've produced R-rated material but not X?" and he agreed with that assessment.

After his interviews, Cole rode the Metro to Smith's Capitol Hill office for a debriefing. Smith kidded Cole about StageDirect. "Gordon said, 'Poona the Fuckdog--we've got to take this national,'" Cole recalls. "He teased me about it repeatedly in the 45 minutes I was with him."

(Easton confirms the meeting took place; Smith declined to comment.)

On May 27, Cole received an email from Ann Hingston, the NEA's White House liaison, all but confirming his appointment. "You are the candidate of the Chairman and NEA," Hingston wrote. Although her email discussed various possible start dates and told Cole the salary he would receive ($131,342), she cautioned that he still needed final approval from the White House political office.

"This [the job] could happen within two weeks," Hingston wrote. "When it does they will call me with the official approval and I will call to let you know. That is when it is official and not until then."

On June 9, he received a call from Hingston saying that White House approval had come. "The job was mine," Cole says.

Cole immediately put in a bid on a Maryland townhouse. Although he received no written confirmation of Hingston's call, she sent an email two days later with his first assignment: He would be getting ...


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Originally published on WEDNESDAY, 10/20/2004

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