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Issue Date:  October 27, 2006

Religion as politics' victim

It’s become a Washington ritual. A former Bush administration insider writes a book or gives candid interviews revealing the dark underbelly of the White House and the president’s spin machine goes into overdrive.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who collaborated with journalist Ron Suskind on The Price of Loyalty, got the treatment in 2004. Bob Woodward, author of the recently-released State of Denial, was a recent recipient of the White House effort to discredit his reporting.

The current target of the PR counteroffensive is David Kuo, former special assistant to President Bush in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Kuo’s new book Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction has some current and former White House operatives busily rewriting history. Kuo writes that the president’s Faith-Based Initiative, the one designed to “enlist the armies of compassion” in the fight against poverty, quickly devolved into a political operation designed to placate evangelicals and conservative Catholics while delivering precious little in the way of public policy to help the poor.

“I think there are factual inaccuracies in the book,” Jim Towey, a Bush loyalist who directed the faith-based office from 2002-2006, told MSNBC’s “Hardball” Oct. 17. Towey (who acknowledged not having read the book) offered a specific rebuttal to Kuo. The charge that his office used White House-sponsored daylong conferences for partisan political ends was simply not true, said Towey. He pointed to Ohio, where Kuo says the office used the gatherings to gin up political support among pastors in the key swing state that determined the 2004 presidential election.

“We weren’t even in Ohio in 2004,” Towey told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews.

The problem is that Kuo never claimed the faith-based office was in Ohio. Here’s what he did say:

“In the days that followed [the November 2004 election], some commentators suggested it was the anti-gay marriage amendment [in Ohio] that turned out voters. As people took a closer look, however, the real difference was in a small but significant switch in black voting patterns. In Ohio 16 percent went for President Bush, the highest any Republican had received in years. For weeks, analysts speculated on what the cause might have been. They missed the most obvious. Every church and charity in Ohio had received an invitation to at least two (some received three) faith-based conferences in surrounding states [emphasis added]. More than a thousand pastors and religious leaders from Ohio attended the conferences. There can be little doubt that Ohio’s success and the president’s re-election was at least partially tied to the conferences we had launched two years before.”

Kuo writes that numerous such events in key battleground states were ordered up by White House political director Ken Melman, currently chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Kuo’s book provoked some headlines because he reveals that some White House staffers in their private conversations spoke disparagingly about evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson. That seasoned and hardened political operatives, like those in the Bush White House, occasionally use cynical language to describe key constituencies and their leaders should hardly be news. One imagines that Democratic operatives, behind closed-doors, occasionally say similar things about leaders in the labor movement or the pro-choice community. Nothing terribly unusual or particularly condemnatory there.

But buried in that brouhaha are some other Kuo nuggets, such as:

  • The National Right to Life Committee’s agreement to support Supreme Court nominee David Souter in return for Bush I administration support for its legislative agenda. Kuo worked at the committee in the early 1990s. “It was a monumentally risky gambit for the organization,” writes Kuo, and one they lost, given Souter’s subsequent support for Roe v. Wade.
  • The White House reaction following the indiscreet comments made by the first head of the Faith-Based Initiative office, John DiIulio. Domestic policy was in the hands of “Mayberry Machiavellis,” DiIulio told journalist Ron Suskind, who wrote about it in Esquire’s December 2002 issue. Nearly two years into the administration, the faith-based office was ordered to come up with some solid proposals. “It had taken a media scandal to get the West Wing to mobilize on compassion,” writes Kuo.

Even then, most of what was developed was rhetoric and money that was moved from one pot to another. Little new emerged from the Faith-Based Initiative, though evangelical leaders relished the attention they received.

Kuo offers a damning indictment, both of those religious leaders so willing to be used and those who used them.

“With the exception of our political activities, our faith-based office had become exactly like one of those small charities we were originally supposed to help -- understaffed and underfunded. We were good people forced to run a sad charade, to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as political tools.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2006

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