The White House turned down an invitation yesterday from the National Endowment for the Humanities asking President Clinton to give its annual spring Jefferson Lecture after scholars protested the choice on the grounds that he was unqualified.
The lecture, which comes with a $10,000 honorarium and a prestigious platform for the chosen scholar, has been given to the likes of Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Jaroslav Pelikan, Leszek Kolakowski and Sidney Hook.
But after the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story Monday that Mr. Clinton - who is not known as a scholar and whose only advanced degree is in law - had been asked to speak, scholars could not express their scorn fast enough.
Those interviewed by the Chronicle - and in a follow-up article in the New York Times that ran yesterday - disparaged the appointment. Lynne V. Cheney, who chaired the NEH from 1986 to 1993, told this newspaper the selection was "truly disgraceful."
"This is an honor for scholars," she said. "The president is not a scholar. I cannot imagine he'll write his own speech. What will he talk on; the mystery novels he's read recently?"
Sheldon Hackney, who chaired the NEH for one four-year term, refused comment on the Clinton selection but pointed out that it's the 20-member NEH Council that selects the Jefferson speaker, not the chairman. The council is appointed by the president.
Nevertheless, some council members opposed the selection. Bruce Cole, a fine-arts professor at the University of Indiana, called it "a grievous, self-inflicted wound to the NEH and a dangerous politicizing of the endowment."
"What were they thinking?" he asked. "It's reckless because it opens up all the old charges of politicization of the agency."
NEH Chairman William Ferris confirmed that a committee, headed by Texas Lutheran University President Jon …