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Saved by God's Gollums

Reporters on an ideological warpath mercifully cut short my yearning for the Inner Ring

Saved by God's Gollums

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

In June 1995, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) decided to yank the license of a Christian group, Teen Challenge of South Texas. TCADA wanted the alcohol and drug rehab center to use state-licensed counselors. Teen Challenge said no, because it relied on former drug addicts whose lives had changed through the gospel, and who wanted to help other addicts.

I learned about the threat while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and editing WORLD. I headed to San Antonio to report on a protest by 300 Teen Challenge supporters in front of the Alamo, that potent symbol of Texas freedom. After my articles appeared in WORLD and later in The Wall Street Journal, readers deluged the office of new Governor George W. Bush with mail protesting TCADA's actions.

Soon a call came: Could I meet with the governor and explain what's going on? Of course-and quickly Bush came out in support of accommodating religious groups like Teen Challenge so they could continue their good work. The experience was exciting: I began to see that even a small magazine could have outsized influence. Other invitations came: A lunch with the governor. A dinner.

I liked Bush and was flattered that he wanted to run with my concept of compassionate conservatism. He took me onto the balcony of the governor's mansion, overlooking the lit-up state Capitol building, and talked about sitting out there in the evening listening on the radio to Texas Rangers games. When he started running for president in 1999, I agreed to chair a campaign task force about the role of "faith-based" groups.

At this point the issue was not so much government dollars but the need for equal treatment. Why should government place obstacles in the paths of religious groups? Why, for example, should a secular homeless shelter be able to get access to surplus food when a religious shelter could not? Our group came up with a plan to set up an office in the White House that would help religious charities get a fair shake.

When Bush's stump speech outlining compassionate conservatism included my ideas about charity tax credits, all the better: Taxpayers would regain some authority, and Bush emphasized that "their support won't be filtered through layers of government officials." Maybe, just maybe, compassionate conservatism could shrink government and restore the once-prime role of charities and ministries.

Much as I loved WORLD, vocation-adulterous thoughts came to mind: Maybe I'll go to Washington and run that White House office. The thought was foolish: God has given me some talent as an editor but no talent as a politician. But the excitement of being in a campaign, of being valued by a presidential candidate and seen as a guru, grew on me.

During this period one important lesson about what's most important came on a beach in Florida. To protect their privacy I'm leaving my four sons out of these accounts, but one story is too amazing to hide under a bushel. (And the son who's involved, Daniel, has approved this message.)

Over the years I took all four, one by one, to spring training: They would see players and garner autographs, and I would interview players. It was drizzling in Ft. Lauderdale when Daniel and I visited the camp of the Baltimore Orioles, and for an hour it wasn't clear whether the scheduled game would be played. During that time I sat on a dugout bench next to Cal Ripken Jr. and enjoyed hearing him talk about youth baseball leagues (he was starting his own) and Bill Clinton (he was scathing).

The Orioles finally called off the game. Daniel had been stuck in the stands during the rain. We drove up the coast. The rain let up. Since it had been a dull day for him, I thought we could redeem it by going into the ocean. The stretch of beach we stopped at was deserted. A lifeguard stand was a distant, tiny spot. Daniel, almost 15, swam out, while I watched from shore. When he ventured out beyond my comfort zone, I waved at him and yelled that he should come back in. Then he started waving and hollering that he could not, which turned into cries for help.

A rip tide had caught Daniel and was pushing him further out. I desperately looked around: No one in sight. I yelled for help but heard no response. I started out, but my poor swimming offered little prospect of success. Suddenly, a dune buggy with two lifeguards came out of nowhere. One of them ran into the water and instantly outpaced me. Then a figure on a surfboard also appeared out of nowhere. He reached Daniel first, then transferred him to the lifeguard, who helped my tired son get back to shore.

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."

My playful column turned into the farce that launched 1,000 quips. Publications did not note the Tom Wolfe context, so it seemed I equated Judaism with Zeus worship. A typical lead read, "GEORGE W. BUSH has a new religious flap on his hands-his adviser Marvin Olasky has claimed three reporters, all Jews, who have criticized Bush, follow the 'religion of Zeus.'" Trifecta time: Slammed in The Washington Post, The New York Post, and The Jerusalem Post. Some who researched my background salted their stories with suggestions that I was a Jewish anti-Semite.

I tried to write or call each journalist who wrote such things. Jewish journalists tended to be sympathetic, but with others it was like playing an arcade Whack-a-Mole game and trying to hit each head with a mallet before it retreats back to its hole. The reporters kept popping up to play Whack-a-Molasky faster and faster, sometimes simultaneously, until there was no way to knock them all down. Many were unapologetic: A Washington Post reporter told me his reporting was fair because "Jews rhymes with Zeus."

The scorn was rightly mine because I had carelessly offered an opening. And yet, God's Gollums brought misery but help, because small step by small step I had fallen into a yearning for what C.S. Lewis in 1944 called the "inner ring," the group (often behind the scenes) that seems to run things. He said this desire becomes paramount "in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age."

I had thought myself immune, but inner ring yearning is like a malaria-bearing mosquito that will squeeze through even a small hole in a bednet. My small hole was the desire to see a concept I had developed put into presidential practice. The national press coverage early in 2000 destroyed my inner ring prospects: That was a hard mercy, because I would not have relinquished them freely.

C.S. Lewis in 1944 said, "The quest of the Inner Ring will break your heart unless you break it." But many people are weak and, like me, need to have God break it.

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.