Illustration by Krieg Barrie

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Biography | The death and life of compassionate conservatism: While a treasured idea became a mess in Washington, it flourished at a small school in Austin

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

In the last episode (March 24) I noted how both ego and ideals-the prospect of a good Bush administration post and the hope of keeping compassionate conservatism on a small government trajectory-had a hold on me early in 2000. Then God's Gollums stepped in, twisting sloppy comments I had made so as to hurt the Bush campaign and make me a political albatross.

The irony was that as the Bush campaign rightly distanced itself from me, critics scoring political points portrayed me as closer and closer to the candidate. On April Fools Day 2000, Gary Wills named me Bush's "principal adviser" and the Moscow Times anointed me as Bush's "closest domestic adviser and soul mate." A German publication called me his "ear-whisperer." They were inaccurate but they weren't fooling: I was the fool to have thought about giving up a journalistic calling to enter the inner ring.

And yet ... and yet ... as I returned with full attention to editing WORLD and teaching, and as a Bush victory began to seem likely, I wondered what would happen to the compassionate conservatism concept. Could I just send it on a small boat down the Nile and hope the right person would pick it up? It seemed that the right person was there: Steve Goldsmith, the former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, a pioneer in trimming bureaucracy and helping small faith-based groups, and Bush's domestic policy adviser during the campaign.

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In late December, after George W. Bush had survived Florida vote counting and hanging chads, the president-elect asked me in a small group meeting about my hopes and aspirations. Here was my opportunity to say, in essence, "I still want to be in the inner ring." Instead, I took a deep breath and said, "I plan to continue editing WORLD, and I'll be criticizing you at times." Bush momentarily looked surprised but then jocularly said, "Join the club."

On Jan. 23, 2001, Bush still had not decided who would head the White House office for "faith-based" and community initiatives. Since I was away from the campaign during much of 2000 I didn't know that inner-ringers who really were Bush's ear-whisperers and soul mates had soured on Goldsmith. Thrashing about for someone who wouldn't be the instant object of press attacks, they and Bush chose John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor and registered Democrat who had been an Al Gore adviser.

DiIulio, a Catholic, was a savvy public relations choice for a president who wanted to demonstrate a bipartisan and ecumenical spirit-but he was also a big-government person. DiIulio wanted to retain the grants economy, with power remaining in Washington, but to have social scientists rather than politicians decide on the basis of data where the money should go.

I had been hearing about poverty from social scientists for a decade and was dubious. Some presented impressive theories showing how the right combination of incentives would move many of the long-time poor from welfare to productivity. If we only had scientific grant-making to groups that had made the right calculations, the government would no longer be wasting billions of dollars. Hmm.

My skepticism came from seeing individual twists and turns. One pregnant and unmarried 19-year-old had lived with our family for 10 months. Her prospects seemed very low, but she bore her child, returned to school, and became a nurse. I had seen Christ change lives, but not predictably: One man we worked with for years could articulately speak about Jesus, but even with strong incentives could not stay out of prison for more than a few months at a time.

In 2001, while compassionate conservatism on a large scale started to take a dissatisfying turn in Washington, my wife and I had the challenges and satisfactions that come with small-scale efforts. That's because two boys, ages 6 and 8, moved in with us as their mom began drinking again. I had helped our church start in 1996 an anti-poverty effort, New Start, and the mom was one of the people we tried to help. We didn't succeed with her-she went back to a dozen beers before noon and chose to beg for dollars by a freeway entrance-but we could help her children.

The goal of compassionate conservatism was to help the poor without growing government. We certainly saw how family breakdown builds up the state: Three social workers, an attorney, a therapist, a judge, and a variety of teachers were already involved in these children's lives, and we saw many of them in the courtroom as a judge ruled that living with us temporarily seemed like the least traumatic thing for the kids.


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