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Profiles in public service

Are there still public servants in Washington? Not grasping for power, but ready to give it up? That's at the heart of a Christian understanding of how to live. John the Baptist said that Jesus "must increase and I must decrease." But such thinking is foreign to many in Washington, who consider it folly to be a true public servant rather than a power accumulator. Here are two exceptions, departing White House faith-based programs chief Jim Towey and Indiana congressman Mark Souder.

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Leaving the White House

Given how few Washingtonians leave the precincts of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue voluntarily, Jim Towey's action on April 18-resigning as head of the White House faith-based office to become president of a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania-was refreshing. He told WORLD that he was "filled with gratitude" for the opportunity he had but "saddened by the stranglehold that certain entrenched interests have."

Mr. Towey did not have huge power during his four years as the president's almoner: Karl Rove and other practitioners of advanced political calculus had more. But Mr. Towey had moved from the right hand of Mother Teresa to the left hand of George W. Bush, and although he could play by Washington rules there often seemed to be a wistfulness about him: Maybe it was better back in Calcutta.

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The 49-year-old Towey had long felt the tug of both power and powerlessness, and zig-zagged between the two. In 1985 he was a senior aide to Sen. Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican who wrote about his own Christian tensions in a book aptly titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place. When Mr. Towey that year met Mother Teresa in India, he abandoned the hardness of Capitol Hill and clambered onto the rock of faith shown him as she, and then he, served bedridden men with sores.

But Mr. Towey was also called to be a lawyer, and his personable seriousness led him to odd assignments such as pushing a Nashville coffeehouse to stop selling T-shirts displaying an image of a cinnamon bun made to look like Mother Teresa. A politically caffeinated assignment followed: two years as secretary of Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, until Republican legislators forced him out.

This time Mr. Towey, a Democrat, survived four years amid the swirling political winds. He leaves carrying his shield rather than on it, in a move that was months in the works and not part of the current White House shakeup. And he leaves sharply critical of long-term federal grants recipients that "don't compete for the funds. They don't have to show results. . . . These so-called protectors of the poor only care about the dollars."

Mr. Towey mentioned specifically the National Head Start Association: "Groups that get Head Start money will keep it until they go out of business." He also complained about drug-treatment block grants, which continue to go out whether "anyone recovers in the programs or not," and some after-school programs. He spoke of "really dynamic programs on the local level" developed by local Catholic Charities, but "I've been disheartened to see how partisan the national organization has been."

The Washington Post recently complained that "the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies." The Post was shocked that faith-based groups promoting abstinence education in South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and five organizations run by black and Hispanic leaders who endorsed Mr. Bush, all received grants.

Mr. Towey scoffed at reports that religious groups are taking over governmental social services: In area after area, Congress has "earmarked hundreds of millions, and faith-based groups only get a tiny percentage." He's right, and even the Post acknowledged that "White House officials and new offices in ten Cabinet-level departments have aggressively sought to widen the 'pool' of applicants for federal grants for all kinds." Liberal newspapers megaphone the complaints of those already in the pool who do not want newcomers splashing around.

The faith-based czar did not use the apologetic favored by some elected as conservatives, Yes, why shouldn't we get into the pork line? We want ours. It's only fair! Because of such thinking, decentralizing tools such as poverty-fighting tax credits and an expansion of social service vouchers have largely been ignored: They should be used, Mr. Towey said, but "we need more people in Congress calling for them," since at this point such proposals are "dead on arrival in Congress."

That Mr. Towey is a bit odd for Washington became clear when he announced to the press that he was leaving the White House. One reporter asked, "You said, before you even took the job, that one of your career goals was to get to heaven. Do you think you're a little closer?" That's a rare question in Washington, and it's even rarer for an official to know where to begin in answering it.

Mr. Towey, who has five children ranging in age from 3 to 13, first deflected the question to his wife Mary, who joked, "It's more his marriage with me that's helping him attain that goal than this job." He then said, "You're as holy as your last prayer. So my career goal remains to get to heaven, and I've felt this job is part of my journey. And now my next step, to St. Vincent College, will be part of my journey. I always trust myself to the mercy of God."

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