DiIulio's Tale

A New York Times story published on December 2nd previewed an article by Pulitzer prize winning reporter Ron Suskind that will appear in the January issue of Esquire magazine in which former head of the Bush Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, John DiIulio, referred to members of the administration as "Mayberry Machiavellis." On December 6th, as the Labor Department reported a 6% unemployment rate in November, the worst in nine years, the resignations of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Lindsey were announced. Stock prices fell on the unemployment news, but gained ground after the resignation announcements. Commentator Mark Shields on PBS's News Hour suggested that the administration had accelerated the resignations -- firings, really -- rumored for some time, because they did not want the Sunday news talk shows to be dominated by discussion of the unemployment rate. Shields' speculation was consistent with DiIulio's picture of the Bush White House, in which there are no actual domestic policies, rather "staff, senior and junior ... consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."

Suskind drew DiIulio's comments from a letter marked "For/On the Record," published in full on the Esquire web site, which DiIulio wrote on October 24. The letter contains ample praise for Bush, whom DiIulio calls "a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency." "He is a godly man and a moral leader," DiIulio says. "He is much, much smarter than some people -- including some of his own supporters and advisers -- seem to suppose."

But the letter also exposes compassionate conservatism as an empty slogan, and reports nearly total lack of interest in or knowledge of domestic policy issues on the part of many members of the administration.

Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism.

DiIulio recounts his experience at the six-month senior staff retreat, held in July 2001, where the discussion was explicitly how to emulate the Clinton administration's rapid response media-relations operation. DiIulio was amazed. Acknowledging that maybe the Clinton administration did that better, in DiIulio's view it was not improved media relations that the Bush administration needed, "No, what they needed, I thought then and still do now, was more policy-relevant information, discussion, and deliberation."

Over an eight-month period, DiIulio reports, he did not witness more than three substantive policy discussions. So-called "white papers" -- information documents on particular issues -- did not exist for domestic policies. "There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff," DiIulio writes. Discussions of policy, says DiIulio, invariably shifted quickly from pros and cons of policies themselves, to political considerations such as media strategy. In one telling instance he reports hearing "fairly senior people" talking about Medicare when they meant Medicaid. (Medicare is a program administered by the Social Security Administration that reimburses hospitals and physicians for care given to patients over 65 years old. Medicaid is a program of financial assistance for medical expenses, for low-income patients of any age, that is administered by the states; the federal government provides matching funds to the states.)

DiIulio, a Catholic and self-described centrist Democrat, was an unlikely participant in the Bush administration. DiIulio grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, the son of a deputy sheriff. He attended the prestigious Haverford School on a partial scholarship, and later the University of Pennsylvania -- the first member of his family to attend college. DiIulio commuted from home, worked construction on the side, and, encouraged by Penn political science professor Jack Nagel, applied to Harvard graduate school. Harvard awarded him a fellowship, and DiIulio completed the Ph.D. program there under sociologist James Q. Wilson in 1986. DiIulio was offered and accepted a teaching post at Princeton, and in 1991, following the publication of his first book Governing Prisons, was made a full professor. After a stint at the Brookings Institution, DiIulio founded the Center of Domestic and Comparative Policy Studies at Princeton in 1989. In 1994 he first articulated the view that inner city churches could play a significant role in reducing urban crime, and set about assisting them in attracting funding.

"It is increasingly clear that the presence of active religious institutions mediates crime by affecting the behavior of disadvantaged youth," DiIulio told the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1997. "A recent study found that controlling for all relevant individual characteristics, such as race, gender, education, and family structure, urban young people whose neighbors attend church are more likely to have a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activity. Inner-city ministries are centers of social health and vitality on America's meanest streets."

In 1996 DiIulio co-authored with William Bennett and John P. Walters Body Count in which a quote from an inmate referring to a new class of criminals was recast in the phrase "super predators." That phrase may have brought him to the attention of the conservative establishment, who seized on it to justify campaigns against rehabilitation.

In 1999 DiIulio joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty, and in February 2001 was tapped by the Bush administration to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The program was intended to help churches obtain federal funding for social service programs. DiIulio resigned in August 2001, telling USA Today, "I’m a big fat guy who hasn't taken care of himself." Earlier, however, he had complained to a Cox News reporter, "I hate the nonsense that goes on here. We had every possible criticism from every possible side. Left, right. All sides."

Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry W. Lynn, commented at the time, "Most people whose ideas are criticized by 'all sides' would probably think their ideas are the problem, not that everyone else is wrong. DiIulio prefers to condemn honest disagreement as 'nonsense' and then head out of town." Lynn was also not alone in suggesting that politics had played a role in DiIulio's resignation, as well. "DiIulio was left out of the loop in recent weeks as Bush Administration operatives manipulated the faith-based initiative to make it more palatable to the Religious Right," he said. Among DiIulio's unpopular comments were the observation that "Bible-thumping doesn't cut it," and the suggestion that "predominantly white, exurban, evangelical and para-church leaders" were not motivated to understand the social welfare needs of inner cities. Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute told the Washington Post DiIulio was "the most strategically disastrous appointee to a senior government position in the 20-plus years I've been in Washington. He has taken what could have been a triumphant issue and marched it smack into quicksand."

The Rev. Eugene Rivers told reporters, "The president’s staff, behind [DiIulio's] back, seeking to placate the white religious right, sought to undermine professor DiIulio’s initiatives to bring the inner cities within the purview of the Bush administration. With John DiIulio’s departure, the Bush administration has formally told the black and brown of the inner cities to go to hell." The resignation, he said "sends a signal that the faith-based office will just be a financial watering hole for the right-wing white evangelicals."

DiIulio also clashed with Marvin Olasky, one of Bush's earliest conservative reporters. Olasky, the putative author of the phrase "compassionate conservative" grew up in a Jewish family in suburban Boston. He attended Yale University, protested against the Vietnam War, learned Russian, and by one account joined the Communist Party in 1972. There are conflicting accounts of his conversion. By one account, while reading Lenin he was suddenly struck with the question of the existence of God. By another, while preparing for a trip to Russia he came across a copy of the New Testament in Russian which he began to read very carefully. In any case, by 1976 he was attending a fundamentalist Christian church, and immersing himself in the sermons of early American Puritan preachers. His Marxist world view was replaced by one in which "Politics is secondary. The important stuff is theological..."

Olasky, who currently teaches journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, emerged from relative obscurity in 1994 when then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich included Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion on a reading list for freshman representatives in the House. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky calls for volunteerism to replace many aspects of government. Writing in The Ethical Spectacle, Jonathan Wallace suggests that a key flaw in Olasky's argument is that it treats the problems of the poor as if they were psychological, rather than physical. "By choosing this battleground, they once again place themselves in a triumphant position, as government is least effective when it comes to psychological issues. Government can force us to salute flags, but it cannot make us patriotic. It can make people work, but it cannot make them want to work. What this approach ignores is that there are children in this country who are physically hungry. Physical deprivation, unlike emotional stuntedness, is an empirical problem like disaster or war that can be addressed--is best addressed-- by government."

By DiIulio's account, however, the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7) that was drafted by "the most far-right House Republicans" "bore few marks of 'compassionate conservatism,' and was, as anybody could tell, an absolute political non-starter." In DiIulio's view a bill could have been crafted within a bipartisan framework by allowing the participation of centrist Democrats, and beginning with "charitable choice law" signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. But the bill that was crafted passed the House only on a nearly party-line vote, and had no chance in the Senate after the Jeffords defection. DiIulio writes that "[I]t reflected neither the president's own previous rhetoric on the idea, nor any of the actual empirical evidence that recommended policies promoting greater public/private partnerships involving community-serving religious organizations." To administration staff however, the mere existence of a "faith bill" was more important that whether it could pass or not. "John, get a faith bill, any faith bill," a senior staffer told DiIulio. DiIulio implies that in his epithet "Mayberry Machiavellis" there was more Mayberry than Machiavelli, as staff was convinced that they could shepherd the flawed bill through congress and have it signed by the summer. Instead of a bipartisan victory, the Bushies gave their boss a black eye.

DiIulio also reports that he had to beg for an executive order that authorized any actual gathering of facts bearing on the "faith bill." "[N]obody cared a fig ... and we got less staff help on it than went into any two PR events or such." The document that DiIulio ultimately produced, titled Unlevel Playing Field is now quoted often by administration officials, and "frames the administrative reform agenda that—or so the Mayberry Machiavellis had insisted—had no value."

DiIulio observes that what did not happen during the first 180 days of the Bush administration is even more illustrative of the preference for public relations over policy. The Bush campaign slogan "No child left behind" remained little more than that, transmuting into other slogans like "communities of character" which had no analogs in actual policy or programs. A related example concerns Medicaid, which was apparently discussed during the Bush campaign as a program that might receive some attention from a Bush administration. In DiIulio's view, existing law is very close to providing universal health care for children, so that not a very large gap would have to be closed either politically or financially to do so. At the same time, adjustments to Medicaid might have provided meaningful relief for the working poor. DiIulio suggests that there were many other similar initiatives that might have been possible -- even in the difficult environment in which he found himself, in which there was a desire "to spend little or no new public money on social welfare." But with "no real process for doing meaningful domestic policy analysis and deliberation" the administration chose "to forget Medicaid refinements and react to calls for a 'PBOR,' patients' bill of rights, or whatever else pops up."

On the surface, DiIulio appears to dispute the suggestion by some that the anti-policy bias reflects the modus operandi of Bush political advisor Karl Rove. But one subtlety in DiIulio's observations is that it is Rove's relationship to Republican base constituencies ("including beltway libertarian policy elites and religious right leaders"), rather than Rove himself, that governs the policy process DiIulio outlines ("reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible"). These constituencies believe, apparently without any factual basis, that "Poppy" Bush lost in '92 because he didn't pander to the right. (They would probably not put it that way.) The reality, according to DiIulio is that there are fewer than ten House districts in the country where a libertarian or right-wing religious credo would attract a majority of voters. Moreover, he suggests, "most studies suggest, Bush '43' could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist." But, like other matters of faith, the Rovers believe their "shared fiction." And although DiIulio does not blame Rove for the lack of authentic policy process, he admits that "[l]ittle happens on any issue without Karl's okay, and, often, he supplies such policy substance as the administration puts out." In fact DiIulio calls Rove "maybe the single most powerful person in the modern, post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political advisor post near the Oval Office."

The latter comment in itself is disturbing, since, as we've noted elsewhere in The Dubya Report, Rove's true area of expertise is political dirty tricks. Wayne Madsen, writing in CounterPunch refers to Nixon political strategist Donald Segretti as Rove's "mentor." Segretti, widely credited with such dubious political tricks as planting a false story about drug use by the wife of Senator Ed Muskie and accusing Muskie himself of using an ethnic slur to describe New Hampshire's French Canadian population, served six months in prison for distributing illegal campaign material. Madsen credits Rove with a similar operation against John McCain during the South Carolina presidential primary. The false stories included insinuations that:

  • McCain had been co-opted by his captors while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam
  • McCain (whose adopted daughter is Bangladeshi) had fathered an illegitimate black child
  • McCain's wife Cindy was a drug abuser
  • McCain was homosexual

Madsen cites several other smear campaigns or political tricks behind which he sees the hand of Rove. Despite his conservative ideology and history of Clinton-hating, Georgia Representative Bob Barr found himself on the receiving end of a Rove political effort during the August primary. A libertarian, Barr opposed some of the provisions of the Orwellian PATRIOT Act. Moreover, Barr has supported Steve Forbes rather than Bush in the 2000 Presidential primary. The campaign of John Linder, Barr's primary opponent, began spreading stories that Barr was "soft on terrorism." Even stranger, although "Poppy" made W. do the dirty work in firing John Sununu during the first Bush administration, Rove and company advocated the candidacy of John Sununu, Jr. in the New Hampshire Republican primary. Sununu's opponent, Bob Smith, had left the Republican party in 2000 to run against Bush. And Madsen believes Rove orchestrated the campaign against Cynthia McKinney in Georgia. The first nationally-known politician to question what the Bush administration "knew" before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, McKinney was defeated by a virtually unknown Republican state judge who had supported Alan Keyes for president.

In the case of the administration's policy regarding stem-cell research (see The Dubya Report's "Denials Underscore Political Calculations on Stem Cell Decision"), DiIulio asserts that Rove "was at his political and policy best." "It was almost as if it took the most highly charged political issue of its kind to force them to take policy-relevant knowledge seriously, to have genuine deliberation."

By contrast, DiIulio points to the creation of the Office of Homeland Security as "remarkably slap dash,...with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature...." Nobody, DiIulio writes, spent the time to understand that an organization with no budget and no statutory authority couldn't possibly coordinate the activities of 100 federal agencies, "no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be."

DiIulio concludes his letter to Suskind:

I believe that the best may well be yet to come from the Bush administration. But, in my view, they will not get there without some significant reforms to the policy-lite inter-personal and organizational dynamics of the place.

National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director, Ira N. Forman, was quick to respond to DiIulio's revelations.

Finally, we have supporters of the former director of President Bush’s faith-based office saying what we all know to be true: President Bush pushed forward the most extreme version of faith-based legislation possible. In fact it was so extreme and went so far to appease the right-wing of the House Republican caucus that it could not be passed into law. It says a great deal about President Bush that he would risk what the Post called 'one of Bush's six core campaign promises' in an effort to placate the most conservative, extreme elements of the Republican Party.

In the wake of the 2002 elections, there has been a stampede among the press and pundits to canonize this President. DiIulio’s statements make clear that this White House is driven almost exclusively by politics, to the detriment of good public policy.

After the Times story appeared, the University of Pennsylvania issued a brief statement on DiIulio's behalf. DiIulio took issue with two items in the Suskind article that were represented as quotes. Suskind quoted DiIulio as saying that what White House domestic policy adviser Margaret LaMontagne "knows about domestic policy could fit in a thimble." DiIulio said that he did not recall making the statement, but apologized to LaMontagne. DiIulio's second quibble was over a reported exchange with Karl Rove during which DiIulio complained about the presence Christian evangelical leaders in the White House. "I'm not taking any (expletive) off of Jerry Falwell," DiIulio tells Rove in the article. In the Penn statement, DiIulio said the article's representation of the exchange, "was most unfair to Mr. Rove." Significantly, however, as Joe Conason observed, DiIulio's statement "affirmed the substance of the Esquire story."

At the noon White House briefing, Ari Fleischer informed the press that "any suggestion that the White House makes decisions that are not based on sound policy reasons is baseless and groundless." Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, tried to press the issue, but the topic turned to Iraq. Fleischer did reveal that DiIulio had "spoken with officials in the office—the faith-based office, and talked with them."

Less than two hours later, the Penn press office issued another statement on DiIulio's behalf, parroting Fleischer's statement. "John DiIulio agrees that his criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. He sincerely apologizes and is deeply remorseful," a spokeswoman said. DiIulio also promised not to discuss or write about his White House experiences.

"So this is what happens when former advisers to George W. Bush speak an uncomfortable truth about the White House." the editors of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote on December 6. "They get squished." "It's a deep shame that someone as principled as John DiIulio was forced to give a craven apology for speaking his mind.," the editorial continued. "It's an even deeper shame - and chilling - that the Bush White House can't stand constructive criticism - even from someone who admires the president" Or as Joe Conason observed, the White House's "new occupants have changed the tone, indeed: It’s either happy talk or dead silence."

DiIulio's insights into so-called policy making in the Bush White House illuminate the paradox of Bush administration claims that they are disinterested in polling while spending millions on polls. As discussed in The Dubya Report in April 2002, these are not polls to determine what the public would like, rather polls to determine how to sell what they've already decided to do.

In a long article on Karl Rove in the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai observes that "There is a kind of Wonderland dynamic at work here, in which the White House asserts its own curious reality, no matter how plain the contradictions." During one interview Rove lectured Bai on presidential courage, and the virtue of making decisions regardless of polls, editorials, or critics. Yet when Bai asked whether, in light of the spate of corporate scandals, the White House appeared too close to big business, Rove pulled out a copy of a CBS poll and began rattling off statistics demonstrating public support for Bush's accounting reform proposals. Catching himself, finally, Rove concluded "Not that we spend a lot of time on these."

" Rove is hardly the first person to mix politics with policy in the White House, but no adviser before him has denied so stridently that there is any connection between the two," says Bai. "Karl would never make recommendations to the president for political reasons if it did not make sound policy sense," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, told Bai. "That's a threshold he would never compromise." Bartlett's statement is blatantly contradicted by at least two major decisions that Rove influenced over the last few months. Tariffs on foreign steel, and $180 billion in farm subsidies were inconsistent with Bush policy principles, but likely to benefit Republican congressional candidates in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the Midwest.

Such doublethink puts Rove in a bind, however. Since the shared fiction is that this administration does not pay attention to polls, Rove won't use polling data to argue for a policy like the farm subsidy, rather he'll frame his argument in policy terms. Bai calls this a "morality laundering scheme," since all of the participants know that Rove has thoroughly researched the polls and consulted political strategists. "They are about as political an administration as I have ever seen," outgoing House minority leader Richard Gephardt told Bai.

Rove's attempts at disguising his political calculations have not fooled conservatives, either. After the tariffs on foreign steel were put in place in March, Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth complained, "The problems with the administration over the past year, and the reason they have fallen into disfavor with economic conservatives, is that it's pretty clear these decisions are being made on politics and not on principle. The steel thing in particular was a political miscalculation by the White House and Karl Rove." Foreign steel producers threatened outright trade war, and the administration granted 727 exemptions.

An old friend of Rove's confirmed Bai's assessment that Rove would hew to his world view whether it served him well or not. "On a pragmatic day-to-day level, he might make adjustments, but he's not going to make changes in a fundamental plan he's conceived and thought through.... I've never sensed a lot of expressions of self-doubt. I don't know that that's part of his personality." It is this faith based reasoning that has contributed to the myth of Rove's infallibility. Yet it is Rove who was largely responsible for the Jeffords defection from the Republican party. Rove knew that Jeffords had been threatening to leave, but, preoccupied with identifying Senate candidates in Minnesota and South Dakota, Rove never called him. Members of both parties complain that Rove and the administration try to cast every disagreement as a moral issue, and consult neither opponents nor the Republican leadership in congress. "I don't think I have ever gotten a call from Karl Rove or anyone on his staff," a Republican member of Congress told Bai. "I don't hear them up here. I don't see them up here. I think they're more insulated than any administration I have ever seen." "They bring it in, and you're either for it or against it," outgoing House minority leader Gephardt says. "The whole economic program based on tax cuts, I think, has been a serious mistake, and they don't seem to be willing to change it or even talk about changing it. It's just: 'Over my dead body.'"

In the realm of policy, Treasury Secretary O'Neill never made much of a secret of his lack of support for the Bush tax cuts. Last week O'Neill reportedly lost a debate about the contents of an economic package to chief economic advisor Glenn Hubbard. Lawrence Lindsey is widely referred to as an economic pessimist, raising the question of how he came to be an economic advisor for the optimistic Bush. Critics also suggested that Lindsey wasn't comfortable with essentially coordinating role of the National Economic Council director, and would have preferred Hubbard's job as chairman of the council of economic advisors. But it was their lack of skill or willingness to sell administration proposals that ultimately sealed their fate. "Neither was made for television," one commentator remarked. Lindsey also made the critical error of telling the economic truth about the war in Iraq, suggesting in September that it might cost $200 billion. He also suggested that a war in Iraq would allow the U.S. to drive the price of oil.

Treasury Secretary nominee John Snow, CEO of railroad holding company CSX, is expected to be more of a team player than O'Neill. NEC director nominee, investment banker Stephen Friedman, was expected to be a better consensus builder than Lindsey. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported, "Rather than looking for decision makers or strategists, the White House is seeking salesmen...."

That was fine with Grover Norquist of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. "Nothing changes in terms of actual policy," he said "As a tax cutter I was happy with the policy before, and I'll be happy with it next week."

After posting a modest gain on Friday, December 6, on the announcement of O'Neill and Lindsey's resignations, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 172.36 points, or nearly 2% on Monday, December 9, the day John Snow was named as O'Neill's replacement.


"The DiIulio Letter" Esquire 12 Dec. 2002

Conason, Joe "Shutting Down A Truth-Teller" New York Observer 10 Dec. 2002

Davis, Bob and John Harwood "Top Treasury Candidate Is Former CSX Executive" Wall Street Journal 9 Dec. 2002

Browning, E.S. "U.S. Stocks Resume Decline After Bush Team Shake-Up" Wall Street Journal 9 Dec. 2002

Purdum, Todd S. "Two Casualties as Bush Seeks Economic Fix" NY Times 8 Dec. 2002

Allen, Mike and Jonathan Weisman "Bush Ousts O'Neill and a Top Adviser" Washington Post 7 Dec. 2002

Gilpin, Kenneth N. "Jobless Rate Surged Unexpectedly in November" NY Times 6 Dec. 2002

Lindlaw, Scott "Former aide tones down criticism of Bush" Associated Press. 2 Dec. 2002

"DiIulio Backers: Bush’s Faith-Based Plan 'Too Extreme'" NJDC In the News. 2 Dec. 2002

"A Penn Professor Gets A Lesson From Bush" Philadelphia Daily News 6 Dec. 2002

"Ex-Aide Insists White House Puts Politics Ahead of Policy" NY Times 1 Dec. 2002

Kudlow, Larry "No Tears for O'Neill" National Review Online 6 Dec. 2002

York, Anthony "Bush shakes up economic team" Salon.com 7 Dec. 2002

Neal, Terry M. "White House Sends O'Neill Packing" Washington Post 6 Dec. 2002

Madsen, Wayne "Exposing Karl Rove" CounterPunch 1 Nov. 2002

Bai, Matt "Rove's Way" NY Times Magazine 20 Oct. 2002

Conn, Joseph "DiIulio Departs" Church & State Oct. 2001

"DiIulio to D.C." Almanac. University of Pennsylvania. 47:21. 6 Feb. 2001.

"The Power Behind The Nominee: Marvin Olasky, Faith-based 'partnerships,' And The Threat To State-church Separation" American Atheists Flashline 4 Aug. 2000

Meyers, Mary Ann "DiIulio Gets Religion" The Pennsylvania Gazette Oct. 1997

Wallace, Jonathan "Is Compassion Tragic?" The Ethical Spectacle Feb. 1997

For the complete text of the Community Solutions bill, search for H.R. 7 here.

Note: on December 13 Bush issued executive orders similar to a compromise reached between Senators Santorum and Lieberman, but never enacted.