The (G.W.) Bush Whisperer – OpEd


By Marvin Olasky*

Journalist Marvin Olasky gives us a peek inside the travails of the “compassionate conservatism” of the late 1990s and the early messaging of the GW Bush presidential campaign. Whither the GOP on poverty and welfare reform? 

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
’Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
’Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

After twice vetoing welfare reform bills, President Bill Clinton in 1996 avoided strike three and reluctantly signed into law the Republican-led measure that turned AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) into TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families. The new law included work requirements for at least half of welfare recipients and a five-year maximum for receiving TANF funds—hence the word “temporary” in the title.

Overall, the Republican Revolution transformed only one of the 80 federal programs that offer money, food, housing, medical care, training, targeted education, and other social services to low-income Americans. Changing AFDC to TANF should have been only the end of the beginning of new GOP concern for the poor, but congressional Republicans did a victory lap that ended with a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

The strongest voices for welfare reform in 1995—Newt Gingrich, Arianna Huffington, and the Progress & Freedom Foundation they promoted and funded—all faced their own hard times during the rest of the decade.

I owe to Newt the prominence of my one bestselling book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. He told me he was “overwhelmed by how powerful it is” for the same reason he was first moved as a 15-year-old when visiting the 1915 Verdun battlefield in France and seeing the bones of 100,000 mostly unknown soldiers. The stories I told of little-known poverty fighters like Charles Brace and Helen Mercy Woods, who gave their lives to help people who would not help them back, moved him.

Newt was single-minded in his desire to achieve historic political ends. In that way, he was a revolutionary like Vladimir Lenin, who didn’t want to listen to symphony music because it softened him up. Pushing revolution became more important than preserving his marriages. One telltale note in that regard came when Larry King interviewed him and brought on Newt’s second wife, Marianne. He asked her, “Would you like Newt to go further than this?” Marianne responded: Her husband was in the right place as Speaker of the House because “he’s playing a key role in effecting change in America and around the world. And I think that that’s where he ought to be right now.” Newt gave her a hard look, and King said, “Look, he’s looking at her like, ‘Are you nuts? I could be president.’” Newt quickly responded, ‘No, no, I’m looking at her because…I’m married to a really beautiful woman.’” He also said, “If I start to get too heady, Marianne pretty much punctures the balloon.”

I had lunch once with Marianne and Arianna and heard them laughingly say that Newt didn’t want his balloon punctured. I missed some important clues. One time in March 1995, Newt and I sat opposite each other in a restaurant at 11:30 p.m. I asked how I could pray for him. He responded, “You know, the physical things.” In 1999, when I learned that his affair with a congressional staffer was already under way in 1995, I wondered if he was hinting at what would destroy his second marriage. But, at the time, I assumed he meant the 18-hour workdays during his first few months as Speaker.

Whether Newt’s concern about the impact of welfare on the poor was sincere or not, he mostly dropped the subject in 1997 and dropped out of Congress in 1999. His think tank, Progress and Freedom, which had blissfully expanded in 1995, laid off half its 27-member staff, and by mid-1997 was in smaller, simpler quarters, as National Journal reported: “The failure of a controversial alliance with conservative provocateuse Arianna Huffington weakened the foundation’s ability to raise money.”

Arianna had created a Center for Effective Compassion in 1995, but in 1997 she and her husband, a former GOP congressman, divorced. Later she divorced the Republican Party. As she moved leftward politically, the Center folded like a cheap card table.

What was going on in Texas had more staying power. After the Teen Challenge battle in 1995, the Texas legislature in 1997 passed three laws that protected religious nonprofits from a stifling Austin bureaucracy, and Governor George W. Bush campaigned for reelection in 1998 on a program of “compassionate conservatism.” His big win and familiar name led to preparations early in 1999 for a presidential run.

Bush elicited support with a personal touch: One evening he took me onto the governor’s mansion balcony, close to the lit-up state Capitol building, and spoke about sitting there and listening on the radio to Texas Rangers games. (I had grown up listening on the radio to Boston Red Sox games.) In 1999, when Bush threw his baseball cap into the presidential ring, I agreed to chair a campaign task force about public policy changes that could help the poor and establish a role for religious groups.

The task force report harkened back to my speechifying in 1995 and 1996, with the audience participation line about whether governments or charities spent money more wisely. Among our recommendations: a tax credit for contributions ($500 for individuals, $1,000 for couples) to poverty-fighting charities in their communities, often Bible-based ones. Bush agreed that such groups could help people change. One reason for his optimism is that he himself had changed.

I wrote about a variety of compassionate programs. Bush visited one of them, City Team in San Jose. He told program participants and Silicon Valley guests: “I quit drinking in 1986, and I haven’t had a drop since then. It wasn’t because of a government program, by the way. It was because I heard a higher call.” Then he walked into a small ping-pong room. The game stopped as he asked recovering addicts how they had changed. Dominadur Limosnero, 31, said, “The Lord opened the door for me.” He started sobbing: “I’m just sick and tired of gangs.”

Bush said “OK,” a signal to his staffers that it was time to move journalists back into the main room. Reporter Jake Tapper deliberately moved slowly and watched Bush take a moment alone with the men. “I appreciate your testimony,” he assured Limosnero and patted his back: “You’re a man.” Tapper was impressed.

Bush officially kicked off his presidential campaign on July 23, 1999, at a Methodist church in Indianapolis. Church choirs revved up the black-and-white crowd. Bush hugged several church leaders and then announced our task force’s recommendations: “Government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life.” He announced his nonnegotiables: “Resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers…. We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs.”

Bush emphasized the importance of religious groups being religious. They would not have to become government lookalikes to gain access to resources. He specified a good way to decentralize: “We will provide for charity tax credits…. Individuals will choose who conducts this war on poverty—and their support won’t be filtered through layers of government officials.”

With that commitment in place, I was a volunteer member of the Bush team. I was editing World, a weekly magazine that included political coverage, but recused myself from editing any stories on the GOP presidential-nomination chase. A New York Times reporter wrote, “When I ask one of Bush’s top aides to explain what a compassionate conservative administration might look like, he says simply, ‘Talk to Marvin.’” Some reporters did just that, and were surprised when I took them for lunch or dinner not to a fancy restaurant but to a University of Texas dining hall.

Over pizza or burgers I would truthfully say that my role was highly informal and my contact with Bush rare. Washington reporters accustomed to hearing bragging about access (an office inches closer to the president’s, an extra minute of face time) were surprised. One later told me his thinking: Since I downplayed my access, I must have huge access. Newspapers elevated me from my occasional role as an “informal Bush adviser” to “Bush counselor” to “a close policy adviser to George W. Bush” to “the revered intellectual guru of Governor Bush.”

Dana Millbank of the Washington Post was shocked that in the dorm dining hall I tried talking with him about Jesus: not a smart move to win support for Bush. Still, the reporting got crazier as the story moved internationally. In one German publication, I became “the ear-whisperer.” In the Moscow Times, I was Bush’s closest domestic adviser and “soul mate.” All nonsense.

What was truthful: Use of the term “compassionate conservatism,” as John O’Sullivan wrote in National Review, was “conceding that most conservatives are not known principally for their warmheartedness.” Would that change?

*About the author: Marvin Olasky, an Acton affiliate scholar, is the author of Abortion Rites and coauthor of the forthcoming The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652-2022.

Source: This article was published by the Acton Institute

Acton Institute

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is named after the great English historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). He is best known for his famous remark: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Inspired by his work on the relation between liberty and morality, the Acton Institute seeks to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing. To clarify this relationship, the Institute holds seminars and publishes various books, monographs, periodicals, and articles.

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