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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.

"I think a lot of other Republicans see what I see," Cole says. "But they are averting their eyes and holding their noses."


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


njaquiss at wweek.com

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a briefing from the NEA's legal staff "regarding ethics and relations with arts organizations."

The same day, Cole says he spoke with a woman named Ann Puderbaugh in the NEA communications office about a press release announcing his appointment. "She specifically mentioned she had been on the StageDirect website and looked at various shows we'd filmed," Cole recalls.

Then, disaster struck. Later that afternoon, Cole received a voicemail from Hingston. "She said something had come up that could affect my position," he says. "It was too late to reach her at office. I was frantic."

He finally reached Hingston at 1 pm the next day. "She said the offer had been withdrawn," Cole says. "She would provide no information. I think she knew why but wasn't going to tell me." (The NEA considers Cole's candidacy a personnel matter, and none of the involved NEA officials or agency spokespeople would comment for this story.)

Having been assured by his friends in the Oregon Republican Party that his StageDirect productions would not be a problem and having landed his dream job only to see it jerked away, Cole was shattered. "I was in a state of shock, about 50 times more upset than when my congressional hopes died," he says.

He yelled for help. "Over the weekend, my reaction went from shock to serious anger. I went back and challenged Easton and said, 'What are you [and Sen. Smith] going to do about this?'"

The answer, apparently, was nothing. "I have the highest regard for Gordon Smith," Cole says. "But when the chips were down, he did not fight for me."

Cole pressed for more information. "Easton said that [NEA senior deputy chairwoman] Eileen Mason was tight-lipped but clearly these productions were to blame," Cole says. "Lavey told me the decision was 90 percent political."

Today, Easton disputes Cole's recollection. He says that Cole's failure to mention Poona and Straight explicitly at the outset of the interview process ultimately led to the offer being withdrawn. "It appears that Gary didn't handle his interview well, and it appears that he didn't handle disclosure of his productions well, otherwise he might have landed the job," Easton says.

Lavey also denies that politics sunk Cole or that he ever told Cole it did. "Gary bears the responsibility for failing to demonstrate his qualifications for getting this job." Lavey says. "He didn't get the job, and he's disappointed. We've all been there."

Cole says he never tried to hide StageDirect--which was mentioned in Smith's letter and on Cole's own résumé, and whose website highlights Poona and Straight.

"This was a cowardly political decision made to appease the socially conservative wing of the party," he says.

He cites an email exchange that he had with the NEA's Mason after his rejection as evidence the agency didn't think he'd been disingenuous. "The only thing that really concerns me about this experience is that there be no lingering questions about my integrity," he wrote to Mason on June 12, 2003. "I'm sorry about the turn of events," she replied. "To my knowledge, no one here ever mentioned the word integrity."

In the end, the only good news for Cole was that the seller of the Maryland townhouse he bid on countered, which allowed him to withdraw. Neither he nor his wife wanted anything to do with Washington, D.C., anymore.

Cole and his wife sold their house in Portland in August 2003 and moved to Raleigh, N.C., where Cole keeps CoHo and StageDirect running from his home office and does some legal work on the side. His wife has taken a customer-service position with United Airlines.

Cole says his NEA experience cost George W. Bush two votes (his and his wife's) and that he's finished with politics, probably forever. "Politics was a huge part of my life for a very long time," he says. "For months after this, I couldn't even bring myself to watch the Sunday morning shows."

Cole says he knows going public just days before the election will cost him friends and may hurt him the next time he seeks financing for StageDirect or legal work.

He's willing to take those risks. "People may look at what happened to me and draw the conclusion [Bush] isn't the kind of guy they should be supporting. If they do, I wouldn't try to talk them out of it."

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Originally published on WEDNESDAY, 10/20/2004

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