QUINCENTENARY U.S. Commission Adrift

September 25, 2007

The white banner hanging over the stage proclaimed: "A Celebration of Cultures: The Columbus Quincenten- nial-with support from Safeway, Inc." The hundred or so spectators in busi- ness suits outside Washington, D.C.'s Union Station last October 12 filled only a fraction of the dozens of rows of chairs set up for the event. Across the street an equal number of people, some wearing the red jackets of the American Indian Movement, beat drums and car- ried posters of Columbus with the cap- tion, "Wanted for Crimes of Genocide." The commercialism of the banner and the sparse turnout were appropriate symbols of the work of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Com- mission, which seven years ago received Congress' mandate "to celebrate and commemorate" the five-hundredth an- niversary of Columbus' arrival in this hemisphere. The commission was sup- posed to be the official flagship steer- ing all quincentenary projects toward a Hollywoodesque Columbus Day in 1992. In fact, its mismanagement has lent greater credence to the message of those who would mark the occasion in a radically different way. Besides sponsoring events, the Ju- bilee Commission acts as a clearing- house for the quincentenary projects of other federal agencies and private indi- vidual organizations, on which it can bestow an official seal of approval. Officially designated projects range from a Florida production of the Franchetti opera "Cristoforo Colombo" to a yachting competition in Baltimore harbor and northern Chesapeake bay. To be accepted, a project must only loosely relate to any number of themes, from Columbus, the Columbian period, five hundred years of history, the Old World or the New World, to anything remotely connected with the ocean. Jacob Bernstein is afreelance jour- nalist who writes on the quincentenary and related issues. In practice, the most important pre- requisite for official acceptance is that the project be self-financed. The com- mission was granted a total budget of $2 million, broken into portions of $220,000 per fiscal year with an extra $200,000 thrown in for 1992-a paltry sum, given the original plans to spon- sor a tour of three Spanish replicas of the ships Columbus took on his first voyage to the Americas, and to help NASA coordinate an international race of solar-powered spaceships to Mars. Going for the Gold Because of its meager finances, find- ing corporate sponsorship became a major preoccupation. But the appoin- tees to the commission appeared ideal- ly suited to that task. It includes the secretaries of commerce and state, the librarian of Congress, the archivist of the United States, and the chairs of the National Endowments for the Humani- ties and the Arts. In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate nomi- nated seven people each, while the Presi- dent appointed ten "broadly represen- tative of the people of the United States." "My God, what are they doing?" Henry Raymont, one of two academics on the commission, recalls saying upon seeing the commissioner list for the first time. "Most of these people are businessmen and they really don't give a damn." The commissioners by and large are people influential in political fundraising or active in volunteer gov- ernment service, including several law- yers, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a New York stockbroker, corporate CEOs, accountants, bank- ers, and an Illinois state senator. The majority of the commission's members are of Latino or Italian descent. Only two are women, including Lynne Cheney of the NEH. None are Native American. The original chairman, Miami real estate broker and Cuban 6migr6 John VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) 9Goudie, personified the Reagan ad- ministration's approach to the quincen- tenary. A friend of President Bush's son Jeb, Goudie had raised money for Republican politicians, among them former Florida governor and current federal drug czar Bob Martinez. In Janu- ary 1991, Common Cause broke the story that Goudie has been named as a defendant in 15 lawsuits since 1987, and had his real estate license revoked for improper use of escrow funds. Goudie also admitted to the New York Times that he failed to file federal in- come tax returns for 1986 and 1987. Raymont charges that all Goudie accomplished during his tenure as chair- man were "several trips to Spain to get his photograph taken with King Juan Carlos." In fact Goudie did entice one corporate sponsor into aiding the com- mission. In 1989 Texaco pledged $5 million to finance the U.S. tour of the Spanish replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, part of Spain's $500 million quincentenary celebration. But what was to be the commission's largest event ended instead in disaster, bringing Goudie's tenure to a swift end. Rough Seas and Murky Waters What exactly transpired between Texaco, Spain, and the commission re- mains obscured in a web of denials and conflicting claims. According to Miguel Ferrer, director of the Spain '92 Foun- dation, a non-profit organization estab- lished by the Spanish government to promote its version of the quincentenary in the United States, "Goudie misrepre- sented himself, telling Texaco that the United States had commissioned the ships themselves, and that Texaco could have exclusive rights." Spain, which views the quincentenary as a vehicle to promote itself as a modern nation and transform its conquistador image into that of positive contributor, was "deeply offended." "It was difficult for Texaco to un- derstand," Ferrer says, "that others had to be able to participate. Texaco just had commercial intentions. They wanted their logo on the sails and jack- ets of the crew." Despite protracted three-way negotiations in 1990, Spain rescinded all previous agreements with the commission and the oil company pulled out. It's a golden pportuntry Souvenirs like this pin reflect the commission's "business mentality." In December 1990, just prior to the release of a New York Times article detailing his financial mismanagement of both the commission and his own personal holdings, Goudie resigned. At that time, it was rumored that the FBI was conducting an investigation of Goudie's activities on the commission. Goudie could not be reached for com- ment, but in the past he described his departure as voluntary and an attempt to protect the commission from harm- ful publicity. Another disgruntled business that hitched its fortunes to the success of the Jubilee Commission is Norco Awards, Inc., which is under contract to market coins, pins, and medallions with the commission's logo of the three ships and Columbus' portrait. (Originally, the commission was to sell only materials and objects that are "substantially edu- cational." But in 1988, legislation was Commission Executive DirectorJim Kuhn places the onus for the Texaco fiasco on Spain, who he claims was not forthcoming with "insurance informa- tion." Texaco spokesperson David Dickson, however, blames Goudie's mismanagement. "At this point," Dickson says, "it is not in Texaco's interest to participate in the quincen- tenary and we are not planning to do anything further with the commission." Curiously, Executive Director Kuhn insists that Texaco remains an official sponsor. "We may not have seen any new funds," he said, "but they have given funds in the past and so will remain as an official sponsor." REPORT ON THE AMERICAS amended to establish the "Christopher Columbus Quincentenary licensing group," and authorize the commercial use of the commission's logo.) Norco spokesperson Mark Ross says "the com- pany will take a considerable profit loss" due to "the inept and inefficient leadership of the commission and the licensing group." To add insult to in- jury, the commission recently moved to have the U.S. Treasury mint its own special-edition silver and gold Colum- bus coins. Minting coins is one of several at- tempts to salvage the commission's waning fortunes by Frank Donatelli, the former AID administrator for Af- rica and political assistant to Ronald Reagan, who replaced Goudie as chair- man in February 1990. But one com- missioner questions whether the recent activity is any more than "damage con- trol." The commission established a Columbus Scholars Program to fund college scholarships and summer ses- sions abroad for high school students. The New World Summer Program sent 100 students to the Dominican Repub- lic in 1990. But the sponsor, a Japanese firm, pulled out and defaulted on the bill, leaving a debt that the commission only recently paid off. "The best we can do now," commission member Raymont says, "is help enhance what is already out there, draw official atten- tion and recognition through the com- mission." Second Wind? In order to deflect Native American criticism of its work, the Jubilee Com- mission says it is in the process of appointing an Indian commissioner, Bill Ray, a Klamath Indian from Southern Oregon. Ray reacted with surprise when asked about his upcoming appointment; until that moment, no one had informed him. Executive Director Kuhn says the White House is processing the paper- work. Ray hopes that his appointment will create "an opportunity for the com- mission to deal with the plight of the modern-day Indian." The U.S. govern- ment terminated the tribal status of Ray's people in the 1950s, and confis- cated its reservation. Official recogni- tion was restored in 1986, but the nation's landbase remains two state parks. "A lot of things need to be done and undone," says Ray, "to improve the status of Indians." Donatelli's speech at the Columbus Day ceremony in Washington echoed the prevailing message of the commis- sion that the quincentenary should be a special occasion in which Italian-Ameri- cans and Latinos can take pride. "Our great country has opened up its arms to people all over the world," he said. "The genius of America is that we have designed a system that can meld a great diversity of people." Donatelli views the quincentenary as an opportunity to use Columbus as a symbol of the American dream of progress and development, conquered frontiers, the triumph of capitalism and the success of technology. "Christo- pher Columbus embodies many quali- ties that can help us: courage, intelli- gence, perseverance, and vision," he said. "The quincentenary is not just an occasion to look back, but also a time to think of the exciting possibilities for a new age of discovery. But we need those old virtues pioneered by Colum- bus nearly five hundred years ago." But not even Donatelli's apple-pie vision manages to rise above the bumbling commercialism of the Jubi- lee Commission. Jesuit priest Charles Polzer, the other academic on the com- mission, believes that the quincentenary could have been a chance to forge a new identity, one more in line with the Re- naissance foundations of the United States. "It is my perception that the United States has lost its identity, and that the quincentenary was an opportu- nity to find it, an occasion to rethink America," says Polzer. "But the com- mission only had a business mentality. Whenever I brought these issues up, they said they didn't have time to dis- cuss them." Growing louder in the background are the insistentvoices of Native Ameri- cans who would like the quincentenary to be observed as a period of mourning and a defiant acknowledgment of their success at survival. In the end, perhaps the commission's travails and ineffec- tiveness, as Polzer puts it, "might have played to the good." The controversy that the commission generated has awakened interest in the quincentenary and allowed others to explore it in ways the commission's sponsors never imag- ined.

Tags: quincentennary, Columbus, US politics, Protest, Texaco

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