For 20 months during 1995 and 1996 I had something in common with Eliza Doolittle, the central character in My Fair Lady. She went from Cockney expressions to royal balls. I, an essentially shy guy who grew up in a home where we rarely had dinner table conversation, never had visitors, and watched every penny, suddenly entered a world of U.S. senators, media stars, and $10,000- to $50,000-per-plate dinners.
The impetus was new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's discovery of a book I had written five years before, The Tragedy of American Compassion. Gingrich had led the way to the first GOP majority in the House of Representatives in four decades. Now he praised the book in speech after speech at a time when the eyes of the political world focused on him.
According to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, my compassionate conservative concept "hit the conservative movement like a thunderbolt." I was showing that Republicans for decades had been upside down in their critique of welfare. The real problem with the welfare state was not that it wasted money. The real problem was its stinginess with what people in trouble need most: time, love, challenge, personal involvement.
Purportedly compassionate liberalism, I argued, treated the poor as pets: Put some food in their bowls and let them lie around, as long as they don't chew up the cushions. Compassionate conservatism also opposed Social Darwinist conservatism, the idea that the poor were losers in the struggle for survival who deserved no help. God's reality is that He makes every human being in His image, with inherent dignity.
That thinking led to an emphasis on faith-based poverty-fighting groups, particularly Christian ones. Government could supply material needs, but historically successful programs offered the spiritual change that turns defeatism into optimism. Big organizations with little knowledge of individual needs and goals almost always gave too little too late or too much too soon. That's why compassionate conservatism in the 1990s emphasized decentralization and argued that government should be smaller and civil society larger.
Gingrich had strong political reasons (as Karl Rove later had) for supporting such an idea: He thought such a message could bring about welfare reform and stomp Democrats. I wanted compassionate conservatism to get national attention, so I took a leave of absence from the University of Texas in January 1995 and agreed to spend every other week in Washington under the auspices of a close-to-Newt nonprofit dubbed the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
Reporters who enjoy man-bites-dog stories relished my lineage. As one reporter wrote, "The Grand Old Party was roused to action by a former Marxist quoting scripture and demanding that they show some compassion." The headline in the Los Angeles Times was typical: "A Hippie's Bad Dream: Communist Goes GOP." The Wall Street Journal's front-page feature proclaimed, "A Texas Professor's History of Poverty Programs has made him the Darling of the Conservative Elite." But I didn't want to be a darling-or did I?
Thus began a time of testing: Ego-stroking media attention came via CBS, NBC, Time, and every major newspaper. The profiles from liberal publications were surprisingly positive: I represented "compassion." One reporter asked about the media attention and quoted me as saying, "It's been weird. I'm a writer, not a policy-maker." But did I want to step into "the Inner Ring," to use C.S. Lewis' term? What would I sacrifice to gain entry?
Ego-stroking power dinners had their appeal: "Olasky has been treated like a star since Gingrich discovered him. Olasky was a featured attraction at a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser for the National Empowerment Network, a conservative TV service. 'This is so weird,' the 44-year-old professor said." Weird was becoming my favorite word, it seemed, but it fit my presence at a dinner with fine wine and fat cats inside the Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House, while protesters outside wore piggy masks and shouted, "Two, four, six, eight-$50,000 a plate!"
A quarter-century earlier I would have been wearing a piggy mask. Now, each donor took away as a party favor a copy of The Tragedy of American Compassion. Gingrich introduced me to a conservative Inner Ring, and I saw segments of the other side's as well. At a time when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and other liberals spoke of going to any length to keep the GOP majority from cutting welfare expenditures, I met with him and five other Democratic senators to suggest a grand compromise: No cuts, but decentralization so that local leaders and taxpayers would have more influence. Their response: No way.
Some Republicans also were not as they appeared. After one late-night meeting in March 1995, I sat in a restaurant with Gingrich and asked at the end of a personal conversation how I could pray for him. He said he needed help with "the physical things." By that I thought he meant his 20-hour-a-day work schedule, with reporters ready to magnify any mangled words into scandal-but he might have been referring to the affair he had commenced that would lead to his second divorce.
Lots of personalities: Arianna Huffington, going through a mid-'90s conservative phase, had me speak about replacing the welfare state at "brown bag lunches" (beef stroganoff and baby carrots served on blue-rimmed Limoges china) and dinners that mixed three distinct Beltway species: the blonde, the bland, the ideologically blind. Network on-air talent had money but intellectual insecurity. Rich but dull benefactors wanted media recognition. New Republic writers had influence but went home to tiny apartments.
Such dinners quickly got old. I learned more from the front-line helpers like Marsh Ward, a leftist-turned-realist who ran Clean and Sober Streets in Washington. He said he at first saw homeless men trapped in unemployment, as if surrounded by a brick wall-but over the years he learned that "it's a paper wall, and you can punch right through." What would give them the energy to punch? I learned from pastors at the Gospel Mission who told the materially destitute that they could be givers and not just takers because Christ had already given so much for them.
Arianna came with me one evening to the Gospel Mission. She listened to stories, took notes on a pad of paper that she placed over her massive diamond ring, and exuded sympathy. She funded the establishment of a Center for Effective Compassion and asked if I wanted to make a long-term move to Washington. On a day when Arianna and I headed in her limousine to a meeting at Bill Bennett's suburban home, I was thinking about whether to say yes. The chauffeur took a wrong turn and soon (pre-GPS days) was lost. As Arianna berated him, I remembered: Don't become dependent on a patron, lest you become a Jane Austen-style clergyman.
Arianna soon moved on to other interests. But the temptation to cut theological corners and play up to media prejudices was a constant. One magazine welcomed an article from me but suggested that I change a sentence about a person who "needs Christ" to "needs religion." I responded, "No way: Religion can be a bad thing or a good thing. When the ex-addicts I'm reporting on say 'Jesus Christ set me free,' I can say no less, both in terms of what I believe and in terms of accurate reporting." The magazine ran the piece as I had written it-but the editors never asked me to write another one.
Did my refusal to play nicely in Washington sandboxes come from my taciturn tendencies or a bond with Christ? Was it a product of weakness or strength? Only God knows, but it was clear that by the middle of 1995 my attempts to minimize the negative-welfare payments that created decades of dependence-had done as much as they could. While Republicans had the votes, could we do something to accentuate the positive by bulwarking decentralized help for the poor?
Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, one of the rare non-preening politicians, had the right idea. He introduced a bill that would offer taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for contributions to local anti-poverty groups: Less money going to Washington, more directly to neighborhood healers. Another Coats proposal offered tax credits for those opening their homes to needy individuals. None of those measures advanced. Democrats wanted more government. Too many Republicans cared more about pork than helping the poor.
In 1971 I had bicycled across the country as a Marxist, looking for an America that I was too ideologically warped to prize. A quarter-century later I crisscrossed the country giving Johnny Appleseed speeches for compassionate conservatism in state after state. The Washington spotlight grew my ego. Visits to the little-known folks in "flyover territory"-saints who poured out their lives for others-grabbed my heart.
The travel gave me new policy ideas as well. After visiting Christian inner-city health clinics like the Voice of Calvary Family Health Center in Jackson, Miss., I proposed giving doctors and nurses tax credits equivalent to 10 percent of their salaries if they volunteered four hours a week at medical clinics for those without insurance. If that had become common practice and those clinics had flourished, one of the prime arguments for nationalized health insurance would have shriveled. Democrats sneered and few Republicans were interested.
People who receive cheers from speechifying can come home with self-disease. God provided three antidotes. Susan and our four sons popped my bubbles. Editing WORLD every week reminded me not to put my hope in political princes. The ministries I witnessed around the country reminded me of how Christ changes lives as He had changed mine.
One day I drove 70 miles south from Austin to the Alamo, where 300 white-, black-, and brown-skinned men and women walked back and forth with signs proclaiming "Because of Jesus I Am No Longer a Burden to Texas Taxpayers" and "Thank You, Jesus, for Saving Me From Addiction." They were demonstrating against an attempt by TCADA, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, to pull a substance abuse treatment license from Teen Challenge of South Texas.
Teen Challenge's crime was not hiding its belief that "man's separation from God" leads to "compulsive deviant behavior engaged in to fill the void of meaninglessness in life." TCADA saw substance abuse as a medical problem, but one grizzled man helped by Teen Challenge offered his testimony in front of the Alamo: "I was a junkie for 13 years. I was a thief. I went to the government programs. They didn't work. Jesus set me free."
I was never an alcoholic or a drug addict. I had been addicted to the self-enthronement that is atheism and its major political manifestation, Communism. Jesus had set me free. I wrote about the demonstration in The Wall Street Journal and in WORLD, asking readers to send cards and letters to new Texas Governor George W. Bush. Soon a call came my way from the governor's mansion: What's going on? What must we do to be saved from this onslaught?
As we talked, Bush got it right away, helped by his own experience in leaving behind sometimes-heavy drinking. He instructed his state bureaucracy to help rather than hinder faith-based community service groups. He established a task force to recommend legislative changes. He did not seem ashamed of the gospel. He spoke of how Jesus had changed his life.
Plenty of political heartbreak was yet to come: The vicious campaign of 2000. The tragic twisting of compassionate conservatism in the Bush White House. More grant-making centralization instead of more individual liberty. Washington pork instead of frugality. The Republican Congress' wasting of opportunities to create new alternatives in healthcare and other domains.
But in August 1996, George W. Bush was embracing compassionate conservatism. Bill Clinton, under political campaign pressure, signed into law welfare reform. My 20 months of academic leave concluded with a sense of satisfaction that, through God's grace, I had worked hard and helped to accomplish something-without walking away from Christ to whom I owed everything. Susan and I had 20 years of marriage and our children were thriving. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.