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A president desperately seeking a legacy

A president desperately seeking a legacy


By Bill Berekowitz

George W. Bush goes back to touting 'compassionate conservatism' and the 'successes' of his faith-based initiative

In 2004, at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, President Bush's contribution to the evening's entertainment was his narration of a slide show that pictured him looking around the Oval Office for weapons of mass destruction. In one of the shots, Bush is looking under some furniture and remarked: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere."

Flash forward four years: At this year's dinner, Bush played highlights from a number of his previous appearances. In a wise decision, he left the WMD skit -- which was roundly criticized for making fun of the issue that was the driving force behind the invasion of Iraq, which has led to deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis -- out of the highlight package.

These days, Bush is no longer concerned about whether WMD existed in Iraq.

Instead, he is desperately seeking a legacy; anything that he can latch onto that might trump the fact that a majority of Americans believe that he will go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. His search for a legacy could prove as futile as the search for WMD. At this point, it appears that it has landed him back he started a week after his inauguration in 2001; touting his faith-based initiative and "compassionate conservatism."

On January 29, 2001, a little over a week after the start of his first term, Bush, surrounded by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, unveiled his faith-based initiative by issuing an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). He followed that up with another executive order that eventually established Faith-Based and Community offices at 11 federal agencies.

While Bush's faith-based initiative has spread its tentacles to a host of federal, state and local government agencies -- 35 governors and more than 70 mayors, both Democratic and Republican, have established programs modeled after the federal faith-based and community initiatives program – Congress has never even come close to passing legislation legally enacting it.

On June 26, 2008 Bush appeared at a Washington, D.C. conference sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, where senior Administration officials, policymakers and over 1,000 public- and private-sector leaders and representatives of faith-based organizations had gathered. Bush once again touted the successes of his faith-based initiative: "You've helped revolutionize the way government addresses the greatest challenges facing our society," he told an appreciative crowd. "I truly believe the Faith-Based Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of this administration."

"...[T]he administration has upheld its promise to treat community and faith-based organizations as trusted partners," Bush said. "We've held your organizations to high standards and insisted on clear results. And your organizations have delivered on those results. You've helped revolutionize the way government addresses the greatest challenges facing our society. I truly believe the Faith-Based Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of this administration."

Two days later, during his weekly Saturday morning radio address, Bush again praised the faith-based initiative, talking about his "new approach called 'compassionate conservatism,'" and he praised the "armies of compassion" supposedly empowered by his initiative, "Because of you, I'm confident that the progress we have made over the past eight years will continue. Because of you, countless souls have been touched and lives have been healed."

"Through their partnerships with the government, [faith-based] ... organizations have helped reduce the number of chronically homeless by nearly 12 percent -- getting more than 20,000 Americans off the streets," Bush said in his radio address. "They have helped match nearly 90,000 children of prisoners with adult mentors. And they have helped provide services such as job placement for thousands of former inmates."

"Faith-based and community groups have also had a powerful impact overseas. In Africa, they have participated in our Malaria Initiative. In just over two years, this effort has reached more than 25 million people -- and according to new data, malaria rates are dropping dramatically in many parts of that continent."

Mini Bush campaign focuses on the 'successes' of Bush's faith-based initiative

Coincidentally -- or not -- on June 28, an op-ed piece by Jim Towey, the head man at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006, appeared in the Washington Post. Towey's article, titled "Who'll Keep the Faith-Based Initiative?", also touted the great achievements of Bush's faith-based initiative and argued that regardless of who is elected the next president, Bush's faith-based initiative should be continued and enhanced. Towey was the second of three faith-based czars -- John Diiulio preceded him and Jay Hein currently head the White House Office -- left in 2006 to become president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

In addition to maintaining that the faith-based initiative had "transform[ed] lives," Towey, who while the faith-based czar called opponents of the initiative "secular extremists," had some more sharply pointed words for his critics: "Liberals who measure compassion only by tax dollars spent say it hasn't gone far enough, while zealots about church-state separation say that it goes too far and should be shut down."

Claiming that the "initiative has accomplished so much for so many," Towey pointed out that "its future is uncertain." It will be up to "the next president [to] decide what to do with it [and] unfortunately, on this issue, both candidates have been silent."

That same week, Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, penned a column that appeared in the Modesto Bee. Titled "Success of faith-based initiative proves the power of the personal," Messmore wrote: "Those who stand in Washington, D.C., typically see problems such as poverty, homelessness and drug addiction in terms of statistics, costs and caseloads. This view nurtures the mindset that these problems can be solved only by government programs fueled by ever-increasing spending."

Messmore assured readers that it isn't government that can respond to these dire situations. It is "religious and community-based organizations, which President Bush has rightly highlighted from the earliest days of his campaign right up through today ... [that are t]he best expressions of this reorientation toward the local, the flexible and the personal."

From the outset, Bush's faith-based initiative has been rife with controversy: In the beginning Religious Right leaders such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opposed the initiative because they thought it would funnel money to groups like the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam. (Falwell and Robertson later changed their minds.) There have been a number of lawsuits challenging the use of faith-based groups in prisons. Faith-based groups have been criticized for how it has used government money including religious discrimination in hiring, religious proselytizing, and disregard for church-state separation.

Bush says FBI has 'high standards' and has produced 'clear results' but few studies exist

In mid-March of this year, Jay Hein, the current director of Bush's faith-based initiative, told the Washington Times that it was time for critics -- who he called "alarmists" -- to get over themselves: "'Can a religious charity provide a social service?' is no longer a question. The question is 'How?'"

So, what about those "high standards" and "clear results" that the president talked about at the Washington conference? What about Towey's claims that "Those who advocate on behalf of huge government anti-poverty programs often focus on increasing the levels of spending instead of achieving results, [and that] powerful lobbies and resistant congressional committees have thwarted attempts to focus on outcomes?"

Where is the proof of "outcomes?" Where is evidence of "results?"

In a June 2006 article for Media Transparency, the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Ian Wilhelm told me in an e-mail that "Towey himself complains that secular charities have not successfully documented their results, but religious charities are hard pressed to do the same." At Towey's departure press conference he used the term results, but it appeared he was more focused on the fact that faith-based programs merely existed, rather than any documented accomplishments.

"I am unaware of any studies that have ever shown that so called faith based agencies perform as well or better than any other in the provision of services," Frederick Clarkson, the co-founder of the blog Talk2Action told Media Transparency. "And indeed, given the Rovian politicization of the grant process -- an updated version of the old fashioned spoils system; dressed-up and inoculated from criticism by the term 'faith-based' -- I would wager that a serious study would prove Mr. Bush wrong."

According to Clarkson, "the premise at the outset of the White House Office was that religious agencies were discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged in obtaining federal grants and contracts ... [a claim that] former Faith-Based Initiative official David Kuo has acknowledged that there was no evidence to support."

"Whether coming from the point of view of warm hearted evangelicalism, or ruthless Republican preferences for privatization of social services, the result has been the same: a diversion of federal funds from existing programs to fund inexperienced and unproved agencies for the sole reason that they were religious organizations, and almost exclusively Christian," Clarkson added.

"If there were any evidence to show that this has been effective, I have no doubt that the success would have been widely trumpeted," he pointed out.

Documented studies continue to be pretty much non-existent. While there are many anecdotes that the president likes to pass off as proof of its success, there is no body of scientific evidence showing that faith-based organizations perform better than, or equal to, secular or government organizations providing similar services.

Faith-based cronyism

Ironically, Bush's mini-campaign hyping his faith-based initiative came only days after ABC News revealed that the faith-based initiative was rewarding contracts to administration cronies. According to ABC News, "A former top official in the White House's faith-based office was awarded a lucrative Department of Justice grant under pressure from two senior Bush administration appointees, according to current and former DOJ staff members and a review of internal DOJ documents and emails."

ABC pointed out that a $1.2 million grant "was jointly awarded to a consulting firm run by Lisa Trevino Cummins who previously headed Hispanic outreach efforts for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and a California evangelical group, Victory Outreach.

"The grant was awarded," ABC found, "over the strong objections of career DOJ staff who did not believe that Victory Outreach was qualified for the grant and that too great an amount of the funds was going to Cummins' consulting company instead of being spent on services for children."

According to ABC, Cummins' company, Urban Strategies LLC, "was slated to get one third of the money for helping the self-described 'evangelizing' Victory Outreach use the rest of the funds."

ABC News' revelations were only the latest information that contradicts the president's rose-colored view of the faith-based initiative. In his book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," David Kuo, the former second-in-command of the White House Office, provided an insiders account of how the Bush White House politicized the initiative, sometimes rejected applications for federal faith-based funds because they came from non-Christian applicants, mocked leaders of the Christian Right, and betrayed the very essence of the faith-based initiative's charge to help the poor.

In his 2006 best-selling book, Kuo "confesses that he and [Jim] Towey hatched a scheme to hold faith-based conferences in congressional districts where Republican incumbents were in political trouble in the 2002 elections," Joe Conn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently reported.

"The events would showcase the Republican candidates as friends of the disadvantaged and hold out the prospect of federal funding to clergy and charity officials. White House political operatives loved the idea. The scheme was carried out and 19 of 20 targeted GOP candidates won," Conn wrote.

In his mid-March interview with the Washington Times, Hein denied that FBCI has served as a political vehicle.

The heart of Jim Towey's Washington Post column consists of five questions (and Twoey's answers) that Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama should be asked along the campaign trail:

  • Will you keep open the 11 faith-based offices that President Bush established in government, including the one in the White House?
  • Will you rescind President Bush's executive order mandating equal treatment of faith-based organizations by the federal government?
  • Will you expand the Bush pilot project allowing addicts to choose their own treatment program?
  • Do you support the right of faith-based charities to hire on a religious basis without forfeiting federal funds?
  • Will you promote competitiveness so that the best provider of social services -- be it sacred or secular -- prevails?

Stripped of alliteration, "compassionate conservatism" and Bush's faith-based initiative comprise a religious patronage system, the political packaging of the conservative movement's long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract. "Compassionate conservatism," in reality, was "promptly abandoned in favor of tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for everybody else and out-of-control budget deficits driven by the military debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq," the ,em>Sacramento News & Review's R.V. Scheide recently pointed out.

With Bush scrambling in search of a legacy, it is interesting that he would turn back the clock to the early days of his administration when his faith-based initiative was fresh and promising. Don't be surprised when that $500 million dollar edifice to Bush's vision and accomplishments opens its doors on the campus of Southern Methodist University sometime during the next decade, to see an entire wing devoted to "compassionate conservatism" and the president's faith-based initiative; there might even be an animatronic Karl Rove leading the tours.

*************

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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