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COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Save America.

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Save America by Marvin Olasky Free Press, $24.00

YOU ARE MARVIN OLASKY. YOU are the youthful-Marxist -turned-middle-aged-evangelical-Christian right-wing social thinker who in 1993 introduced George W. Bush to what blossomed into "compassionate conservatism" From your perch at the University of Texas journalism school, you bask in your new-found public attention, even when the Christian newsweekly you nominally edit, World, runs a cover story by Bob Jones IV bitterly excoriating John McCain right before the South Carolina primary. Then there was the quote that The Washington Post took out of context about the unfitness of women for the presidency.

Okay, so you're getting a little nervous. You ask yourself: Am I too controversial for Dubya? Why have the media started giving Myron Magnet of City Journal equal credit for inspiring the Bush social gospel? You remember David Osborne, the author of Laboratories of Democracy, who at this point in the 1992 political season was hailed as Bill Clinton's guru. You also realize that it's been years since anyone mentioned Osborne's name. In short, even though you remain confident that Dubya continues to treasure your advice and insights, you're also adult enough to know that a presidential nominee, let alone the occupant of the Oval Office, can be fickle in his affections.

So what is to be done? How about a book called Compassionate Conservatism that will forever brand you as the avatar of the movement? A hard cover that will put you on TV explaining the philosophy right before the Republican Convention. Maybe even a book with a forward from Dubya that says, "Marvin is compassionate conservatism's leading thinker." (Oh, the negotiations with Karen Hughes that it took to get that sentence just right.)

Now for the hard part: what to put between two covers? A collection won't get you the attention you crave. But a real book, written in your take-no-prisonerss-the-infidels-are-at-the-gate prose style, might finally scare off Dubya for good. Anyway, you need to soften your image a bit, sort of like John Steinbeck wandering America with his dog in Travels with Charley. Bingo! why not go on the road for two months with your 14-year-old son, Daniel, and describe your visits to faith-based anti-poverty programs? You were scheduled to visit them anyway to do the real-people-telling-real-stories background research for Dubya's mid-1999 speech in Indianapolis defining, yes, "compassionate conservatism." In the corporate world, they would call this synergy.

So what's this obviously thin book like? Well, there are the requisite passages of shameless Duhya flattery: "Bush was clearly in charge, pouncing on generalities and pushing for specifics, as he always does." There are the irrelevant asides that suggest padding to hit a minimum page count: "We went to a ball game at Busch Stadium and saw Mark McGwire hit a home run." And, yes, there are inspiring, if repetitious, stories of moral uplift: "Bitter and unable to perform much manual labor, he sold drugs and saw no meaning to life until God grabbed him twelve years ago." Not to mention the saved and brave souls battling against poverty and anti-poverty governmental bureaucracies: "Payne was wearing a red tie with drawings of happy children on it, but most of the children he is responsible for are not smiling"

How does this melange connect with compassionate conservatism? Well, the Big Idea is that if you gave lots of government antipoverty money to religiously motivated community organizations and allowed them to continue to push salvation, you would theoretically begin to win the war on poverty. This approach should be contrasted with Al Gore's watered-down, have-it-both-ways notion of giving funds to faith-based institutions, but simultaneously making sure they don't proselytize.

As any admirer of the Salvation Army knows, there is a germ of truth to this notion that, while religion may be the opiate of the masses, faith works wonders in individual cases. It is a provocative issue--especially for liberals sensitive about the religious issues involved, but who should be impressed that there are some conservatives who genuinely care about eradicating poverty and are hard-headed about only funding programs that work.

Too bad, then, that Compassionate Conservatism is such a slapdash book. But then, come to think of it, Dubya is a pretty slapdash messenger

WALTER SHAPIRO, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, is a political columnist for USA Today.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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