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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Whose darling?

Radicalism | Finding my way home after weird times in Washington. Part 10 of a pilgrim's slow progress

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

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.

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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.

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