A merciful resignation

Posted: Aug 24, 2001 12:00 AM
Washington was buzzing this week about the resignation of John J. DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A smart and funny University of Pennsylvania professor, DiIulio (according to an Aug. 20 Washington Post editorial mourning his departure) "presented his faith-based initiative as if it were a Gore-style reinventing-government program." That did not thrill many conservatives. Washington being what it is, liberal journalists wrote fulsome eulogies while privately trading rumors of resignation-under-pressure like kids trade baseball cards, or used to. The most popular cards among reporters: The White House inner circle had had enough of DiIulio's loose lips, disorganized management, and ineffective lobbying (in terms of obtaining more Democratic support for the initiative). It's true that some of DiIulio's disparaging comments about evangelicals earlier this year (for example, "Bible thumping doesn't cut it") broke what could be called the Rove Doctrine of "Do not alienate your base." But the Bush White House includes many kind people, and top Bush aide Karl Rove and others had real concerns about their colleague's health. Football fatalities around the nation during August turned some sports pages into obituary reports. In Washington, a dedicated but heavily overweight DiIulio was doing the equivalent of two-a-days under intense political heat and personal stress. Something had to give, and it was best for this good man to leave with his shield rather than on it. The resignation was DiIulio's decision, and associates said it grew out of a clear recognition that the heat in the philanthropic kitchen would grow even more severe over the next few months. Part of that heat was the result of his own decisions; as gutsy critic Michael Horowitz has been shouting for months at high decibels, DiIulio's "personality has its charms. His strategic vision was a disaster." DiIulio's success at selling his direct-grants emphasis to TeamBush almost flat-lined what was a multi-dimensional concept. In a July 1999 speech that defined his sense of the governmental role in compassionate conservatism, candidate George W. Bush emphasized first the importance of tax credits and deductions, and second the prospect of direct grants. DiIulio ignored the tax-credit proposal, downplayed deductions, and tried to soothe concerns on the left by proposing rules for grantmaking that discriminated against evangelicals. Professor DiIulio, though, has given us all an education. In 1999, some Bush advisers claimed that a direct-grants program could establish a "level playing field" for all religious groups. In the past seven months, though, some evangelicals have fumed about potentially subsidizing Scientologists, some Jewish groups have hollered about funding evangelical anti-poverty activities, and so on. We've now seen, given our cultural and theological differences in America, that a level-playing-field direct-grants bill can't get through Congress, and a politically feasible bill will discriminate against effective programs that President Bush himself has highly praised. TeamBush is also boxed in because of controversy concerning two key provisions in the faith-based bill passed by the House of Representatives. One clause (inserted because of conservative pressure) would give administration officials the option to use vouchers within many programs, and the other would continue to allow religious groups to say no to hiring homosexual or heterosexual adulterers. The Senate is unlikely to support a bill with those two clauses, but key conservative groups and members of Congress are likely to oppose the bill if those two provisions are stripped from it. As DiIulio leaves office, an initiative that at first had enjoyed public support is now mired in controversy and attacked by both left and right, with Sen. Joe Lieberman awarded a large role in its future development. Speculation concerning a new faith-based office head is now rampant. Former front-runner Steve Goldsmith, or DiIulio associates Don Eberly and Don Willett, would be good choices, but a surprise choice would be unsurprising. How about Harry Houdini?