Rutherford President Turns from Court to Culture Battle

Article excerpt

Publishers balked at the scope of John W. Whitehead's 1,300-page history of modern culture, so the author turned his project into an award-winning 2 1/2-hour video series.

In "Grasping for the Wind: Humanity's Search for Meaning," Mr. Whitehead manages to connect such diverse influences as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, artist Salvador Dali, filmmaker Orson Wells, author J.D. Salinger and British punk rockers the Sex Pistols.

His interest in art, literature and music may come as a surprise to those who know Mr. Whitehead primarily through the Rutherford Institute's role in Paula Jones' lawsuit against President Clinton.

Mr. Whitehead's brief brush with the national limelight convinced him that fame is "a strange experience. . . . You have to put it in perspective." And he has no desire to be famous for his part in what Hillary Clinton called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" as Mrs. Jones' lawyer. "I'm much more complex than that," Mr. Whitehead said.

He produced and narrated the ambitious series, divided into seven half-hour episodes, which he said is intended to explain the ideas that have shaped Western civilization since the 18th century.

"Most people don't have an idea of why they think the way they do," said Mr. Whitehead, founder and president of the institute, a nonprofit legal foundation based in Charlottesville that often embraces religious freedom issues. "That was what I wanted to do, was to show that a lot of what has shaped our thinking usually began in the mind of some philosopher, and then was spread by writers, artists and entertainers into popular culture."

Reflecting its diverse subjects and sources, the title of "Grasping for the Wind" comes from the Bible - Ecclesiastes 5:15-16 - while the central thesis comes from questions posed by 19th-century French artist Paul Gauguin: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

It is reminiscent of another film series by an evangelical Christian, "How Shall We Then Live," a survey of 2,000 years of Western civilization, released in the mid-1970s by the late scholar Francis Schaeffer.

The idea for Mr. Whitehead's series began with his 1993 visit to an exhibit of 20th-century modern art in London. "It had everything in there, from Jasper Johns to [Marcel] Duchamp," he said.

"It started me thinking about some of these things - how art connects with literature and film, how these things come in huge waves instead of as isolated events," Mr. Whitehead said. "The ideas of one period influence the ideas of the next period, and how some ideas are so powerful that they endure."

He points to 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who influenced Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac - American "beat" writers of the 1950s - who in turn influenced pop singer Bob Dylan.

Rimbaud's concept that an artist's lifestyle should reflect his art also influenced rock singer Jim Morrison and the Sex Pistols, Mr. Whitehead said.

"There are a lot of people who don't realize that the Sex Pistols are probably the second most influential rock group since the Beatles," he said, even though the group was "only around for about a year before they collapsed." The Sex Pistols, Mr. Whitehead said, were successful in popularizing "the punk lifestyle" among youth.

By connecting the art of Picasso, the music of Beethoven and the philosophy of Voltaire with the history of the past two centuries, Mr. …