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The Same Old Klein

"W" says the magic words


Posted Wednesday, July 7, 1999

        Are you running for President? Would you like to have the enthusiastic support of America's premier magazine-based political correspondent, the journalist who did more than any other to get Bill Clinton elected? Well, you've come to the right place, because can now reveal the key four-word phrase that, if uttered sincerely enough, is virtually guaranteed to win you the support of The New Yorker's Joe Klein. Here it is:

        "faith-based social services"

        What does this phrase mean? It means religious groups helping the poor and afflicted by combining material assistance, counseling, and training with an unashamed spiritual message. Klein is crazy for them. Most advocates of F.B.S.S. want the government to fund such organizations as part of official antipoverty policy -- without making them set up separate, non-religious subsidiaries.

        The candidate who so far has most successfully used the magic Klein-catching phrase is George W. Bush. Bush is the subject of a glowing one-pager by Klein in the New Yorker's July 5 issue, a piece that focuses specifically on Bush's "giving money to charitable and religious groups for 'after school programs, maternity group homes, drug treatment, . . .'" etc. "He actually funded such programs in Texas," Klein writes. "It couldn't also be that he actually cares. Could it?"

        Joe! Wake up! You're falling in love again! There's nothing wrong with faith-based social services. But you have a history of picking out useful little ideas and then blowing them up into grand de facto litmus tests. What other neat little ideas have you been obsessed with? Well, before "faith based social services" you incessantly championed "second chance homes" for unwed teen mothers, as well as the enforcement of statutory rape laws against adult men who have sex with unwed teens.

        This sort of obsession can lead to major judgmental error. What's more important: whether as president Bush funds a few church-based drug treatment programs or whether he knows how to handle a nuclear-armed China convinced it is the next world superpower? Even when it comes to antipoverty policy, your perspective has been distorted -- you huffily opposed the radical, highly successful (so far) 1996 welfare reform law because a puny $150 million for "'second chance' pilot projects was stripped from the final bill," and because (you wrote) "there is no acknowledgment in the legislation -- none -- of recent studies that show significant numbers of ... children are the victims of statutory rape." Actually, the bill has a section on statutory rape -- but that's not the point. The point is your pet projects were both worthwhile but relatively trivial issues compared with the large, consequential choice made by the legislation, which was to basically let states do what they wanted to do to replace cash welfare with work and limit the duration of benefits. (Incidentally, the 1996 welfare bill also permitted governors, for the first time, to fund faith-based social services. If Clinton had taken your advice and vetoed the bill, Governor Bush wouldn't be able to impress you by bragging about his success in Texas.)

        Bush would of course have promoted "faith-based social services" even if it wasn't your current fetish. But I bet he's smart enough to know that by emphasizing the idea in conversations with you he'll have you swooning. And then when you do swoon ... well, it's not inspiring of trust. It makes you look like a bit of a sucker.

        The truly bizarre thing is that you must know that's the way it looks. You were annoyed a few years back when one of Clinton's aides leaked a prescient "how-to-handle-Joe-Klein" memo to the press. And you wrote Primary Colors, a stunningly good novel in which you make fun of a Joe Klein-like character, a reporter, for his flimsily-grounded political crushes. One reason many people didn't believe you'd written Primary Colors was that they didn't believe you could be that acutely conscious of your own weaknesses. They were wrong. Yet here you go again. I don't get it.

        -- Mickey Kaus

Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.