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From Foley to Kuo: Washington buzz last week focused on a book by former Bush staffer David Kuo that hit the shelves on Oct. 16. His Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction reveals-according to the breathless Free Press publicity headline-"how Bush White House Manipulated the Christian Right."
In reality, the book and its relentless publicizing-60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and other network shows, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles-show rampant manipulation on all sides: As Kuo put it in a WORLD interview-"everyone is using everyone and everyone has his own agenda." Because I've known Kuo for over a decade and was involved in hiring him 10 years ago to direct an organization designed to promote compassionate conservatism, he and I were able to examine some issues in our interview that have received short shrift elsewhere.
But first, some background on a smart, sophisticated, and sociable 38-year-old. With those attributes and a great backstory-his Chinese dad fought Mao Tse-Tung and escaped the Communist takeover on the last boat to leave Shanghai-Kuo was able to build a resumé with all-star bosses. His first job in Washington was with the National Right to Life Committee, but then he worked (usually briefly) for Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, John Ashcroft, Bob Dole, Ralph Reed, and George W. Bush.
Kuo's work as a speechwriter and aide to many famous politicians made him a bright Forrest Gump or maybe a Leonard Zelig, the character in Woody Allen's 1983 mockumentary Zelig who looks and acts like whoever is around him. (Clever editing placed Zelig in real newsreel footage of Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, and others.) Kuo, like many 20- and then 30-somethings who write in the voice of others, had a hard time finding his own: Tempting Faith is his attempt to be his own man, a Christian.
Kuo's passionate need to confess-in our interview he described himself as "a poor, poor, poor pilgrim. I stink at following Jesus"-was also prompted by an operation three years ago that removed from his brain an egg-sized, malignant tumor. Doctors say the cancer may return. Five years ago I witnessed Kuo behaving like a Zelig, but cancer has a way of focusing attention.
Kuo's stated agenda, then, is to put Christ before politics, and perhaps to leave a legacy for his three daughters. Tempting Faith is far more than its highly publicized excerpts about some Bush staffers dissing Christian leaders. (That comes as no surprise, since the administration-like the GOP generally-is made up both of Christians and anti-Christian libertarians.)
The publicity barrage has ignored some valuable specific detail on how the Bush faith-based initiative went astray early on. Kuo notes that the 2001 Bush tax cut left out "the president's promised $6 billion per year in tax credits for groups helping the poor. Those tax credits had been the centerpiece of compassionate-conservative efforts for years."
The White House, Kuo charges, decided that it was more important to cut the estate tax than to help the poor and decentralize poverty-fighting. Not wanting to make the big tax bill any bigger, the Bush administration fought against key congressional staffers and succeeded in having the anti-poverty tax credits dropped.
In our interview, Kuo said that Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee were "dumbfounded" by the White House switch: It was a "direct trade" to emphasize the estate tax over the compassionate conservative agenda. Kuo stated that "everyone in the West Wing knew" about the trade "and didn't exactly protest."
Kuo includes more detail about Bush administration problems but stated that "the very last thing I wanted was some anti-Bush book for the sake of being anti-Bush." And yet, Kuo in February 2005 wrote a Beliefnet article critical of the Bush administration that received considerable attention and led to his Free Press contract. He acknowledges that he knew the anti-Bush excerpts would be liberal fodder this time as well. So why did he write this book the way he did and agree to its publication shortly before a crucial election?
Kuo in our interview gave two reasons. First, he still wants the compassionate conservative movement to succeed, and this is a way of attracting attention to its yet-unrealized potential: "If this hadn't come out now, how many conservatives would even have given it a single thought?"
Second, "The point for me is the spiritual point-Jesus must always be first, always." He wants to communicate to Christians, "Please understand that you are being used. Look shrewdly at that and remember, remember, remember that Jesus must come first."
A third reason should not be overlooked: Publishers would not pay much for only a Kuo spiritual memoir, but books with Bush-bashing lines bring big advances. Kuo would not state the exact size of his advance for the book but said "it is commensurate with what I made in public service. No, it is slightly more." He added, "To all those who say I am doing this for financial gain, I find it ironic that they are making nice salaries themselves, enabling them to make that criticism."
Others, of course, have their own agendas:
- Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, obviously wants to sell books. Kuo signed a contract last year to produce a book for publication in the first quarter of 2007, but the company-with Kuo's consent-shrewdly moved up publication to present an October surprise that would yield anti-Bush buzz. Nine pages of publicity materials accompanying Tempting Faith do not quote anything from the spiritual/political autobiography that makes up the first half of the book.
- The liberal press agenda in pushing the book is clear, as it was clear regarding the relentless reporting of Rep. Foley's disgrace: Suppress the Christian conservative vote. Kuo's revelation that some Bush staffers called certain Christian leaders "ridiculous" and "goofy" helps in that process, as does Kuo's over-the-top proposal that Christians take a two-year "fast" from politics.
- Bush administration staffers last week attacked the book, and Kuo asks rhetorically, "Is the White House using this to mobilize Christian conservatives by showing how much the 'liberals' are out to get them? Absolutely. They see this as a great opportunity to stir up the controversy necessary to mobilize blasé evangelicals."
Kuo in our interview noted a typical reaction to criticism by some Bush staffers and their supporters: "Saying anything negative in any way against GWB wasn't just bad taste or wasn't just the wrong thing for me to do (lack of loyalty) but a sort of heresy." Last week Jason T. Christy, publisher of The Church Report, called Kuo "an addition to the Axis of Evil" who "is being used to try and prop up the liberal left, to breathe life into lifeless campaigns and his master literary work is a mere smokescreen. Questioning the faith and motivation of this administration is wrong."
Others have been more nuanced in their critiques. Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked alongside Kuo in the White House faith-based office, commented, "Whatever the political dimensions and shenanigans, the Bush faith-based initiative is part of a large movement that began before the Bush administration, will continue when a new president is sitting in the Oval Office, has global counterparts, and is vital for effective social assistance. . . . It is tragic to trivialize the important work that has been done."
And Kuo will probably not gain much support for his proposal that Christians withdraw from politics for two years. Asked why he did not instead call for increased discernment, he said, "The fast isn't to say don't vote." He emphasized instead the need to contribute more thoughtfully: "$200 million has gone to the RNC [Republican National Committee] alone this year-almost all of it from small-dollar donors, good men and women (probably Christian) who are wanting to do just the right thing, but what is it buying us?"
Christians need to be discerning and to accentuate biblical ways of helping widows and orphans. But the irony of Kuo's critique of political idolatry is that, if followed fully, it would increase the power of those who are the most idolatrous. If the saints go marching out, others will march in unimpeded.