D.C. city limits

"D.C. city limits" Continued...

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

We soon witnessed a different kind of family dynamics. The 8-year-old initially spent big chunks of time sobbing. I hadn't before seen long-term child depression: "This whole world sucks. ... It's all stupid." The 6-year-old tiptoed around, fearful that if he said or did anything that irritated anyone, or even made some noise, he'd get hit. Their definition of a man was someone who hits a woman, as they had seen their dad hit their mom. They had learned to scavenge for food and stay up late. They had seen the effects of different types of drugs on a stream of strange visitors.

Susan and I had a simple goal: show love and put some structure in their lives. First came something as simple as breakfast, where they would now sit at a table and eat rather than grab Pop Tarts from cupboards and cold pizza from floors. They went to school every day, instead of erratically. Eating dinner with a whole family and reading the Bible with dessert were new experiences for them. Bedtime stories, a first for them, were one way to get them settled for sleep.

I started reading them The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as I had done with all my children, but their reactions were new to me. They could readily identify with the four children living apart from their parents, but the change in Mr. Tumnus' home from cozy at first visit to trashed the next time did not surprise them. Nor did they see anything strange about the witch-queen of Narnia offering candy plus sweet talk one day, and crusts of dry bread plus whippings the next.

And I quickly recognized my inadequacies. I could readily think of myself as a good dad when my four sons made things easy-but these troubled boys were harder. They had learned to be fearful, since any small act of kindness from an adult might be followed by a physical or emotional wallop. They had learned that good things would come their way only if they whined so much that an adult would finally give in to shut them up. I had appreciated in a theoretical way what directors of children's homes or homeless shelters do, but now I saw the 24/7 pressures.

I also saw the rewards. It turned out that the younger boy was a tremendous little artist: When he grinned, with gaps between his teeth, he looked like a jack-o'-lantern. The older one had learning disabilities, but he lit up when he finally understood a patient explanation. Their spontaneous expressions of affection, like sudden hugs, surprised them and me. Another surprise: The state government was helpful, with a judge correctly terminating the parental rights of the unresponsive mom, and a Christian social worker finding the right adoptive family for the boys.

That process worked out much more happily than anything emanating from Washington, which is where I headed for a Jan. 29 ceremony creating the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. When Chuck Colson at the meeting expressed some skepticism about government's tender mercies, Bush joked that if he had a "litmus test as to whether we could work together, the room might be empty." Soon it was. DiIulio quickly pleased liberal reporters by saying that evangelical programs would be unable to participate in the faith-based initiative unless they agreed not to evangelize.

I didn't know how to react. The Bush folks had been friendly: Karl Rove took me to his office (formerly Hillary Clinton's) and showed me her hidden vanity mirror. I didn't want to be one of those anemic academics who has an idea, sees it picked up by a politician and carried to Washington, and then starts screaming because it's not all he had hoped for. Nor did I want to say anything negative about DiIulio and give journalists the opportunity to say I was being too picky or, worse, reacting out of personal pique because the job wasn't mine.

God's Gollums had forced my hand in 2000. This time, one of God's agitators did so. Michael Horowitz is a think-tanker whose Hudson Institute office wall exhibits plaques with names like "Wilberforce Award" that signify his frequent recognition by human rights organizations. But lots of Washingtonians who have worked with Horowitz over the past quarter-century can't stand him. That's because he screams at them when they don't burn bridges. His flow of sharp words rarely stops before 20 minutes have gone by.

The day after the White House ceremony I was still in Washington, doing some reporting, and Horowitz was badgering me. You know they're making a mess of your idea. Now that they've gained power they won't give it away. You know that. I did know that, but didn't want to admit it. After a sleepless night, I showed up the next day at a meeting Horowitz had scheduled with reporters.


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