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The godfathers of 'compassionate conservatism';
By Bill Minutaglio
When Myron Magnet sat on the couch with George W. Bush three years ago, he had a feeling that the Texas governor had finally found the philosophy he was looking for.
The writer had been invited to Austin by Mr. Bush and Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's longtime political strategist. The idea was for the Manhattan-based Mr. Magnet to lecture the governor and his staff on his theory that less government was better government.
Along with Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor and author, Mr. Magnet has been instrumental in shaping the bedrock of Mr. Bush's public policies - something the leading GOP presidential contender describes with the catch phrase "compassionate conservatism."
The two men, far and away, have been the spiritual and intellectual godfathers of Mr. Bush's core philosophy.
In Austin that day in 1997, Mr. Bush told Mr. Magnet that his 1993 book The Dream and The Nightmare, had changed his life.
The work suggests, in large part, that the true legacy of the 1960s was a laundry list of societal ills that the United States is still paying for.
"I gleaned when I went down to see him that it [the book] had crystallized things that he had been thinking about for a long time," said Mr. Magnet, who edits the urban policy publication City Journal and helps run The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "The book kind of contains the formula for compassionate conservatism."
But just a few miles away from the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Olasky, an intellectual ally of Mr. Magnet's, might suggest that he, also, had the literal formula for Mr. Bush's by-now-famous philosophy.
In the foreword to Mr. Olasky's upcoming book, Compassionate Conservatism, What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America, Mr. Bush calls the professor "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker."
In his 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Mr. Olasky also outlines his belief that the country erred in its thinking that a big, generous government could solve social problems.
When Mr. Olasky wrote it, he had no idea that his then-little-known tome would become the rage among GOP leaders - and that it would eventually be a key part of Mr. Bush's presidential aspirations.
In that book Mr. Olasky suggested that social problems are better solved by the private sector - churches, faith-based institutions, volunteers, civic-minded corporations.
The over-reliance on government, something Mr. Olasky and Mr. Magnet say was amplified in the 1960s, created an enormous underclass hopelessly addicted to welfare and other social programs, Mr. Olasky argued.
What Mr. Magnet and Mr. Olasky pushed hard for was a return to a day when people helped themselves - and when neighbors helped one another.
It was, both men maintained, a more moral and efficient way of running society and government.
Critics said the men were advancing a cold-hearted abandonment of the poor by advocating slicing thousands of Americans from helpful federal programs.
Critics have also blasted Mr. Olasky in recent weeks, suggesting that his writings might have anti-Semitic sentiments and that he needed to be held accountable for what they said were attacks on women in a 1998 scholarly journal.
"God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, generally speaking, but when that occurs it's usually because of the abdication of men. . . . I would vote for a woman for the presidency, in some situations, but again, there's a certain shame attached," said Mr. Olasky. "Why don't you have a man who's able to step forward?"
Mr. Olasky, who was once an avowed Marxist, has staunchly defended his theories, suggesting that reporters misinterpreted and took them out of context.
One thing is clear: Both Mr. Magnet and Mr. Olasky entered Mr. Bush's orbit about the same time.
In 1993, Mr. Bush watched his father step down from the presidency, and he almost immediately kicked off his own campaign to run against then-Gov. Ann Richards.
At the same time, Mr. Magnet and Mr. Olasky were evolving into the intellectual darlings of what some people would eventually call The Republican Revolution - the Newt Gingrich-led attempt to cement the GOP's hold on the electorate.
Searching for moral, historical and sociological arguments on which to base their strategy, some GOP leaders turned to the books by Mr. Magnet and Mr. Olasky.
For many GOP leaders, including former Education Secretary William Bennett, the books provided the intellectual ammunition in the war against what they perceived to be big-government, Democratic excesses.
Things kicked into high gear when Mr. Bennett gave Mr. Gingrich a copy of Tragedy of American Compassion as a Christmas present. In short order, Mr. Gingrich was suggesting to anyone who would listen that the book was required reading.
Word trickled to Austin, to Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush, and meetings were arranged between the governor and the authors.
Aside from having Mr. Magnet lecture his staff and advisers, Mr. Bush also asked Mr. Olasky to counsel him on how to overhaul the state's welfare system - how to introduce the Olasky-Magnet theories into Texas.
"I looked forward to the opportunity to talk some baseball [with the governor]," Mr. Olasky said. "In our discussion, though, he showed . . . an understanding of the history of poverty fighting."
Rebuffing criticism that Mr. Bush is simply interested in cutting welfare rosters and maybe sending some warm political overtures to Christian leaders, Mr. Magnet defends the governor's embrace of "compassionate conservatism."
"I felt that this was a guy who really did have an idea where he wanted to go," said Mr. Magnet. "He wanted to undo the cultural revolution of the '60s and lead America back to decent values and social policy based on decent values."
Democratic leaders, including Vice President Al Gore, have said that Mr. Bush isn't really leading anyone with his attempts to be a "compassionate conservative."
In November 1998, Mr. Gore announced that Americans could stand to have more than "crumbs of compassion" - and Democratic National Committee national chair Joe Andrews added that "compassionate conservatism is a contrived cop-out."
And, as the GOP primary season heated up last year, ex-Gov. Lamar Alexander from Tennessee labeled Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservative" title as "weasel words."
One of Mr. Bush's clearest, most personal defenses of his philosophy comes, fittingly, in his own words inside his friend Mr. Olasky's yet-to-be released book.
"Compassion demands personal help and accountability, yet when delivered by big government it came to mean something very different," Mr. Bush said.
"We started to see ourselves as a compassionate country because government was spending large sums of money and building an immense bureaucracy to help the poor. In practice, we hurt the very people we meant to help."
©2000 The Dallas Morning News
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