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Saved by God's Gollums

"Saved by God's Gollums" Continued...

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

Back on the beach I looked out to where the surfer had been: He was gone. I profusely thanked the lifeguards, but with hardly a word they rode off, disappearing almost as quickly as they had appeared. Daniel and I walked back to our car, thoughtful and grateful. In 61 years I have never thought myself in the presence of angels-except this one time.

Meanwhile, throughout 1999 and the initial months of 2000 the Bush campaign for some reason made me a go-to guy when Washington reporters came to town wanting to learn more about Bush's thinking. When I explained truthfully 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: Olasky downplays his access, thus he must have huge access.

The more I demurred, the more my stock rose, with movement in press accounts from the accurate "informal Bush advisor" to "the revered intellectual guru of Governor Bush." The legend grew when a New York Times profile of me included a paragraph quoting Bush's nice comments about me, and then the reporter's summary: "Indeed, 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.'"

Dream on. Like each 2012 GOP presidential candidate in turn, a surge merely made me the object of incoming fire. Counting books, articles, and interviews of me, I had probably produced about 3 million words from 1983 to 2000, and some of them-about abortion, public schools, and a variety of social issues-could readily be taken out of context.

Why didn't I remember that journalists shouldn't be politicians, and that separation of press and state was important? In part, hope: Maybe in Washington I really could help to get government out of the way of ministries and charities. In part, pride: Like Frodo with his ring at the Cracks of Doom, I didn't have the strength of will to say no to the prospect of power, even though I would have handled it no better than many in Middle Earth or our earth.

Happily, God sent some liberal journalists to serve as Gollums. They made me miserable for a little while, and I still feel a twinge-maybe if I had gone to Washington compassionate conservatism would have stayed on track (as if that were in my power). Still, knowing my weakness, I can see that the appearance of Gollums was a great, although hard, mercy.

The first hard mercy came through the aftermath of our Stealth Bible controversy (see "More unmerited mercy," Feb. 11). In 1998 the editor of a newsletter published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood had asked me about male and female roles in the light of the Bible. For Sunday school teaching I had just been studying chapter 4 of the book of Judges, where Israelite leader Barak balks at God's command to lead an army against the Canaanites and says he won't go unless the prophetess Deborah goes with him.

Her response was that the Israelites would win but Barak would not gain honor in the process. I offered the editor my exegesis and practical application: that women often led when men didn't step up, and that I'd vote for a woman for president but would think it shameful that men had abdicated. Gasp! I had mouthed off thoughtlessly to a small newsletter, but by 2000 the internet age was far enough along for anti-Bush researchers to find what this "top Bush advisor" had said. My words were suddenly a sexist quotable in dozens of liberal publications.

Soon a second set of attacks arose. At the end of 1998 I had written a positive review of Tom Wolfe's novel, A Man in Full, within which a main character converts to stoicism, which Wolfe called "the religion of Zeus." A little over a year later, with Bush and John McCain the top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, I picked up that riff and compared Bush's emphasis on Christian compassion ("the religion of Jesus") with John McCain's stoical stress on the classical virtues of courage, duty, and strength ("the religion of Zeus").

It was dumb of me to call McCain a Zeus follower, even playfully, in a way that could readily be taken out of context. Toward the end of the column I waxed even dumber by citing three East Coast journalists who praised McCain's classical virtues: Bill Kristol, David Brooks, and Frank Rich. I knew Bill is Jewish, but the thought never occurred to me-it should have-that if Brooks and Rich are also Jewish my comment could be taken as anti-Semitic. They are. It was. One New York reporter researching my sudden rise ran the headline, "Bush Crony Blames 'Zeus Worshipers.' Three Jewish Journalists Scorned."

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