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Gary Cole is a bundle of contradictions: artist, theater producer, attorney, former CIA employee, lifelong Republican and -- for three days in 2003 -- head of the $60 million annual grants program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Cole, 46, sees himself as a casualty of the culture wars. His political appointment to the NEA was quickly torpedoed by Karl Rove's office. At issue: two theater productions filmed by StageDirect, Cole's Portland, Oregon-based video company. Straight is a one-man play about the "Exodus Movement" to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuality; Poona the Fuckdog is a scathing political satire on mass media and commercialism.

On Monday night, Cole read from his book Artless: The Odyssey of a Republican Cultural Creative, at Barnes & Noble in South Burlington. Today, Cole, who calls himself a "non-practicing Republican," admits he was naïve in believing his dual passions for politics and the arts wouldn't eventually collide.

He points out that the Bush family already had one disastrous experience with a Republican attorney from Oregon in the 1980s: former NEA Director John E. Frohnmayer, who sponsored a controversial exhibit by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Apparently, Rove wasn't about to provoke a similar row with his socially conservative base.

"Theater, to me, is all about challenging people," Cole told the dozen or so people in attendance. "And that's not how you go very far in politics."

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