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D.C. city limits

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

D.C. city limits

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

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.

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.

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.

I told them that the DiIulio emphasis on discretionary grant-making gave government officials too much power to pressure religious groups to change their ways. I predicted that this approach would alienate friends without placating opponents, and would grow the size of government instead of shrink it. Great: Less than two weeks after Bush's inauguration I was in opposition. There goes my White House pass. Goodbye, inner ring. Thanks, God's agitator.

In 2001, though, a different type of inner ring began in Austin. Several people in our church realized that Austin public schools did not meet the spiritual or academic needs of the two children who had lived with us. From out of those concerns came our idea for City School, a new K-8 academy that would serve children from both rich and poor areas and discern the distinct gifts and inclinations of each child.

Over several months we ran across 32 children who could benefit from our approach. Some came from racial or ethnic minorities. Some were way behind academically. A couple were way ahead and thus also didn't fit. Some were dyslexic: Sweet and often smart kids with dedicated parents, and every day in school had been an experience of failure for them.

I was learning firsthand the limitations of social science that looks at people as group members. The poor people and ex-convicts we had tried to help, the children who came to City School, the people I as an elder interviewed for church membership-they all had their individual stories. Educational assembly lines and other factory models did not work with human beings.

Compassionate conservatism at street level, I realized, is different from its appearance at suite level, where the talk is of grant-making and statistical assessments. Compassionate conservatism, rightly understood, is not rocket science and not even social science. It is not an oiled bowling alley. It is an English muffin with nooks and crannies. It's an embrace of individuality.

We embraced individuality in selecting teachers. They were uncertified but good-and parents felt a bit more at ease when a Harvard Law School graduate who was a homeschooling mom became the headmaster. She had given her children an afternoon break where they drank hot chocolate as she read them stories-and City School developed some of that feel.

We embraced individuality among students previously seen as dummies, and gave them an opportunity to showcase their strengths. One student built an amazing Rube Goldberg machine that worked. We found action books for boys who found they liked reading. We urged kids to write creatively even when they had every-other-word spelling errors. Hangdog kids learned to shake hands and make eye contact.

We had frustrations. I had seen historically how bad charity drives out good. Now in Austin I saw that, even though City School tuition was practically free for the poorest, some parents sent their kids to bad public schools because we could not match free breakfasts/free lunches/free transportation/other bells and whistles. I watched in Washington as "compassionate conservatism" by Sept. 11 had mutated into a big government program-and on that day the nation's attention shifted.

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.