Whose darling?

"Whose darling?" Continued...

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

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.


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