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Austin American-Statesman.

The book that helped shape Bush’s message
Wedsnesday, January 27, 1999

by Dave McNeely

What does Gov. George W. Bush mean by "compassionate conservatism"?

Basically, government should do as little as is necessary. But while we have a responsibility for ourselves, we also have a responsibility for each other.

Midway through his recent gubernatorial address, Bush said: 

"Government can't solve all our problems.... The real answer is found in the hearts of decent, caring people who have heard the call to love their neighbors as they would like to be loved themselves (T)he danger to Texas (is) if the dream is not available to all, it diminishes the dreams of the entire society."

Bush's demand that people take responsibility for themselves, which he says undergirds almost every decision he makes has been shaped by a 1993 book that blames the social and political permissiveness of the 1960s for many problems since then.

That book, "The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Under-class," argues that overzealous efforts by the Haves to help the Have-Nots actually made their situation worse, not better.

In the relaxed moral and sexual attitudes of the 196Os—the attitude that, as Bush characterizes it, “if it feels good, do it”—personal liberation lapped over into political liberation, observes author Myron Magnet.

That quest for personal liberation on the part of the Haves, influenced by left-leaning media and political figures, "withdrew respect from the behavior and attitudes that have traditionally boosted people up the economic ladder—deferral of gratification, sobriety, thrift, dogged industry, and so on through the whole catalogue of antique-sounding bourgeois virtues," says Magnet.

Bush read the book before his first campaign for governor in 1994. Karl Rove, Bush's principal political adviser, describes it as a road map to the governor's attitudes on the role of government. Bush also met with Magnet about a year ago.

Magnet, who has a doctorate in English literature from Columbia University, is a member of the board of editors of Fortune magazine and a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he is editor of City Journal, a quarterly magazine on urban affairs. The book grew out of a series of stories on poverty and social policy Magnet wrote for Fortune in 1987 and 1988, interviewing homeless and underclass people, public officials, shelter operators and others.

Some of Magnet's conclusions about the social policy of the 1960s:

"(T)he new culture held the poor back from advancement by robbing them of responsibility for their fate and thus further squelching their initiative and energy.

"Instead of telling them to take wholehearted advantage of opportunities that were rapidly opening, the new culture told the Have-Nots that they were victims of an unjust society, and if they were black, that they were entitled to restitution, including advancement on the basis of racial preference rather than mere personal striving and merit.

"It told them that the traditional standards of the larger community, already under attack by the counterculture, often didn't apply to them, that their wrongdoing might well be justified rebellion or the expression of yet another legitimate 'alternative life-style.' . . .

“The new culture ... allowed the neighborhoods of the Have-Nots to turn into anarchy, and it ruined the Have-Nots' schools by making racial balance, students' rights, and a 'multicultural' curriculum more important than the genuine education vitally needed to rise."

Meanwhile, the liberal elite Haves, to make themselves feel better, "acquiesced in dubious and ultimately destructive measures such as the parceling out of rewards on the basis of race . . . or the excusing of criminals as themselves victims (or) the lifetime public support of able-bodied women whose only career was the production of illegitimate and mostly ill-parented children." So what's the right thing?

"(T)he required solution is for the poor to take responsibility for themselves, not to be made dependent on programs and exempted from responsibility," Magnet argues. "For the breakdown of the poor to be healed and the moral confusion of the Haves to be dispelled, we need above all to repair the damage that has been done to the beliefs and values that have made American remarkable and that for two centuries have successfully transformed huddled masses of the poor into free and prosperous citizens."

From Bush's inaugural address: "Every child must learn to read . . we must get children the help they need. . . (They) must also be educated in the values of our civil society . . to say yes to responsibility, yes to family, yes to honesty and work, and no to drugs, no to violence, no to promiscuity or having babies out of wedlock."

If anyone is in doubt about Bush's attitudes, this book is a good primer. How resonant that message is may well be tested in the 2000 election.

McNeely writes about politics for the American-Statesman. You may contact him at dmcneely@statesman.com or 445-3644.

©1999 Austin American-Statesman

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