Reconsidering Bush’s “Compassionate” Conservatism

Reconsidering Bush’s “Compassionate” Conservatism October 20, 2011

After I had read his book, The Man in the Middle, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Goeglein, who from 2001 to 2008 was one of George W. Bush’s longest-serving aides, as Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison.  I was struck in particular by his testament to the president’s compassion.  Although he famously flubbed his lines in speeches, and some of his Bush-isms are now a part of our common tongue (like strategiary and misunderestimated), Bush was deeply loved by those who worked with him.  People were not only impressed by his ability to glad-handle and work a room (as they were with Clinton), but by the genuine care and grace the President demonstrated in his relationships with them.

Personally, I’ve sometimes wondered whether “compassionate conservatism” came out, in effect, to big-government conservatism.  I no longer think that’s the case.  Although Bush expanded government spending, he often directed that spending in ways that did not further bloat the government bureaucracy but, instead, empowered churches and ministries and other organizations in the private sector to do their work.  In those cases where he did permanently expand government entitlements, I think he was genuinely trying to help — and was ill-served by some of his political aides.  Please consider the following parts of the interview, including the author’s stunning story of sin and forgiveness:

George W. Bush

The catch phrase, when President Bush first came to office in 2000, was “compassionate conservatism.” Do you think President Bush lived that out?

In my present role with Focus on the Family, I had to be up in South Africa earlier this year. Everywhere I went, whether for business meetings or ministry meetings, I was amazed at how highly regarded George W. Bush is in Africa. That’s a direct result of his compassionate conservatism and his historic work battling AIDS and malaria there. The President’s PEPFAR initiative against AIDS, and his anti-malarial program, stand among his most significant foreign policy achievements, and yet they’re little known or appreciated now, at least in the United States. I hope they will be recognized over time.

It’s worth revisiting what the President said when he spoke, in his first inaugural address, about the parable that Jesus told of the road to Jericho. The meaning of compassion stands at the very heart of that parable. The Priest and the Levite walk directly past the man who’s been injured and stripped naked. The Good Samaritan crosses the highway to help the man and pays for his care. Jesus says that the Good Samaritan had “compassion” on the injured man. We understand that in Christian scripture as having true mercy.

This is what George W. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism. It’s not that the federal government was going to come in and supply every need. Just the opposite. When George W. Bush gave one of the most important speeches of his Presidency, at Notre Dame, he was specifically countering Lyndon Johnson’s notion of the Great Society…What he wanted to do, and what was at the heart of compassionate conservatism, was to advance mercy and compassion by removing an institutional bigotry within the federal bureaucracy against faith-based programs that were turned away just because they were faith-based. George W. Bush made clear that the federal government was not going to buy the Bibles or the crucifixes, but they could further the good work that these faith-based organizations were doing.

And he was right. The private sector, the intermediary institution, the concept of subsidiarity, these were so important to President Bush. He believed in this mission, believed that faith-based groups were often addressing social ills more compassionately and more effectively than the government could do. Removing the institutional bigotry against faith-based programs was exactly the right thing to do.

So “compassionate conservatism” wasn’t just a campaign slogan to get him elected?

George W. Bush was sincerely one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. I saw this on multiple occasions. He treated the lowest staffer with the same respect he did a king, a queen, or a pope or prime minister. This was a direct result of his faith.

As you know, the first chapter of The Man in the Middle is about the grace and mercy and compassion he showed to me in a way that was very personal and, in the political classes, rather unparalleled. When you embarrass the president, the vice president, or the like, you immediately become persona non grata. They need to hold you at a great distance. You’re simply not invited to the White House and extended grace and compassion in the way the President did to me.

What I’m saying is, George W. Bush’s faith shaped not only his foreign and domestic policies but also the very basic ways in which he treated people. He had this gift and ability to connect with real people regardless of their station in life. It was indeed a very compassionate conservatism that he represented.

What do you say to those who assert that “compassionate conservatism” was code for “big-government conservatism”?

George W. Bush never spoke in code. George W. Bush is that rare politician—and I have worked in Washington for nearly twenty-five years, I’ve walked with the princes of this world—he is that rare politician who is the same in private as in public. He says what he means and means what he says.

Compassionate conservatism was not a euphemism or code. It represented, and represents, precisely who he was and is, as a result of his faith. It really was dramatized in George W. Bush’s visit (when he was Governor) to a prison in Texas where Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship had become very active. The President saw the results of their ministry, and the way that their work was impacting these otherwise-very-hardened criminals. A seed was planted. George W. Bush came to see that there was an absolutely critical role for faith-based and community groups. They were the “little platoons” doing the most important work. He resolved that when he came to the Oval Office, he would take that model or paradigm and apply it nationally.

Compassionate conservatism was George W. Bush’s character and it was his commitment. It was not code or an effort to be clever.

You had your own experience of sin and grace when a reporter discovered that some words in unpaid pieces you wrote for a newspaper had been taken from other sources. You describe this in your book without flinching. What happened? How does someone in the White House, especially someone as savvy as yourself, start down that road? And how did the President respond when this came to his attention?

I’m pleased to be asked about this. Proverbs is correct: Pride goes before the fall. But in the words of T. S. Eliot, “humility is endless.”

In my time in the White House, I was becoming a very prideful person. This pride and vanity extended to plagiarizing columns for my hometown newspaper. I was not writing about politics, but about many other things that interested me. Pride takes many forms, and one of them is always wanting to be the brightest guy, the one with something interesting to say. I began plagiarizing these columns. I knew what I was doing, and I knew it was wrong.

One morning I came to work at the White House and when I opened my email I found a reporter asking whether this was true that I had plagiarized these columns. I literally fell to the side of my desk. I prayed, “Oh God, oh God.” I knew right away that the world as I had known it was over on that day. I felt, as I say in The Man in the Middle, that my world was collapsing. By return email, I told the reporter that it was entirely true, and I was guilty as charged. I had no one to blame but myself.

There are, in this world, two kinds of crises. One is where it’s beyond your control, and another is where you’re directly responsible. I was directly responsible, without excuse. I inflicted, as a result of my own sin, shame and embarrassment on the President, and on my colleagues and mentors. I had violated everything I believed in, and was a hypocrite to my wife and children and family. Categorically. So I resigned from the White House that day. That was on a Friday.

On a Monday, I came back to the White House to begin clearing out my desk and taking the pictures off the walls. I received a call from Josh Bolton, who had become a friend from the first Bush campaign when we met in Austin, Texas. Josh was now the Chief of Staff, and he said he wanted to see me. I presumed that would be the proverbial “woodshed” moment, which I thoroughly deserved.

The first thing he asked me was, “How are your wife and boys doing?” Then he extended to me his forgiveness. I was genuinely shocked and deeply moved by this. We spent a considerable amount of time together, and before I departed his office he said, “By the way, the boss wants to see you.”

So surely this, I thought, would be the woodshed moment, and again I completely deserved it. I expected other people to be there, but when I got to the Oval Office the only other person there was the executive assistant. I thought I must have come on the wrong day—but the President called me in. I thought: This is going to be really bad. I went in and closed the door.

I turned to him to apologize, but barely got the words out before he looked me in the eyes and said, “Tim, I forgive you.” To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I tried again to apologize, but he wouldn’t let me. He said, “Tim, I’ve known grace and mercy in my life. I’m extending it to you. You’re forgiven.”

I said, “You should have thrown me into Pennsylvania Avenue.” Again he said, “My friend, you’re forgiven. We can talk about all of this, or we can talk about the last eight years.”

I turned to sit on the couch in the Oval Office, but he directed me to the seat of honor beneath the portrait of Washington, where Heads of State sit. I sat there, and he and I had a conversation about two remarkable presidential campaigns, and what was at that point about seven-and-a-half years in the White House. I was by then one of the longest serving aides to the President. We embraced, and I thought this was the last time I would see George W. Bush. As I turned to head out, though, he said, “I want you to bring your wife and boys here, so I can tell them what a great job you’ve done.”

I was stunned and speechless. The leader of the free world, the most powerful man on earth, wanted to affirm me before my wife and children. Sure enough, my wife and boys came, the President gave them a great amount of time in the Oval Office and gave them gifts. We were invited back to the White House as a family on subsequent occasions. We were there at Andrews Air Force Base for his departure. I’ve seen the President a number of times in Texas and he’s never mentioned it again. So, in my mind, George W. Bush is and was grace personified.

So to go back to your earlier question about compassion: I was the wounded man on the side of the highway. I was totally and completely guilty and undeserving of the President’s forgiveness, and yet he gave it to me without reservation. He extended grace to me at the lowest point in my life.

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