DATE October 18, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Kuo talks about his memoir "Tempting Faith" and
his time in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, David Kuo, is the author of the controversial new book "Tempting
Faith," in which he charges that the Bush administration manipulated Christian
conservatives to get the Christian vote. And he describes ways in which he
thinks Christian conservative leaders were seduced by power and acted as if
Jesus' main goal was advancing a particular policy agenda.
Kuo is himself a conservative evangelical Christian. From 2001 to 2003, he
served as the deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives. Before that, he was a policy director for then-Senator John
Ashcroft and also did work for Ralph Reed, William Bennett and Bob Dole.
His book has been criticized by some current and former members of the Bush
administration, as well as several evangelical leaders. A little later, we'll
hear from one of his critics, his former boss at the Office of Faith-Based
Kuo told me that when he joined the Office, he hoped it would be impassioned
in its work on behalf of the poor.
David Kuo, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you think that the Office was used as a
way to energize the evangelical vote. You write, "I wasn't just a Christian
trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking
for ways to recruit other Christians into politics so that we would have their
votes." What's an example of how you think the Office of Faith-Based
Initiatives was used to actually recruit Christian votes?
Mr. DAVID KUO: You know, Terry, that's a really important section there.
And it strikes at the deepest spiritual part of me and at the book. And that
is, you know, I had been a Christian; I'd been in politics. And I'd struggled
with the nexus of the two. And I then found myself in the White House, having
come there to fight for the poor, in a position of really recruiting and using
evangelical voters--any Christian voters--trying to recruit African-American
pastors, trying to use, frankly, the initiative of the poor purely for
Now part of that was something that I embraced. I wanted to try and figure
out the best way to advance the president's agenda, because no one else in the
White House seemed to particularly care. And I figured, `Hey, if we can make
this initiative politically relevant in the White House, it would give us the
political capital to be able to make a change.' But, as with all things, it's
a tough sell and it was ultimately not the right sell, because it certainly
didn't help fulfill the president's promise for $8 billion a year in aid to
GROSS: Well, you describe that you organized or helped to organize a series
of meetings in about 20 battleground states between 2002 and 2004. What was
the official purpose of these meetings, and how do you think these meetings
were actually used?
Mr. KUO: These were called roundtable events--not exactly the most original
name in the world, but the purpose of them was to try and help out embattled
Republican incumbent candidates for the 2002 elections by bringing in and
recruiting evangelical and minority pastors and charity leaders to appear with
someone from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Intiatives
and with the incumbent candidate to try and make it appear that the Republican
candidate was inclusive, a different kind of Republican, a compassionate
conservative. And it didn't work very well in terms of aid to the poor. It
worked apparently fairly well for candidates, because the overwhelming
majority of them won.
GROSS: So where does the aid to the poor fit in, even, to that equation?
Mr. KUO: What you hit on there is the classic political question of
trade-offs, and what do you get, how do you compromise, because our bet, my
bet, was that we could elect these people and that they would care more about
the poor; they would embrace that agenda. But I don't know, I went to one of
these events out in Colorado on behalf of a Republican senator named Wayne
Allard in Colorado, and I appeared before--gosh, one of these--it was the
largest of them, I think, several hundred people, no more. I mean, hundreds
and hundreds of people in an old Safeway store that had been converted into a
And I went up there and I embraced in front of this diverse community and I
said, `This is just a man who embraces President Bush's compassionate
conservatism.' And I remember thinking as I was just saying these words, `You
know, but he doesn't actually embrace the compassionate conservatism; he
actually doesn't necessarily have antipathy for the poor, but he certainly has
a huge measure of apathy.'
And that's the huge question for anyone who gets involved in the political
process. I think it's a bigger question for Christians who get involved in
the political process, because it's the question of, `How much do you
compromise your own faith? How much do you compromise the reputation, if you
will, of your god for political ends?'
GROSS: How much faith-based money was spent on the kind of events that you're
describing here, in which you mobilized, like, ministers of color to appear
with candidates to help them get elected?
Mr. KUO: Well, the ones I specifically talked about here that you reference
were relatively small events and paid for by, you know, mostly by political
campaigns. The larger things that I talk about in the book are these things
called--that we called religi--conferences, White House conferences on
faith-based and community initiates. And these were very, very large. We're
talking about bringing in 1500, 2,000 people, to provide faith-based charities
and pastors with very useful information. I mean, objectively useful
information about how they could apply for federal grants and where federal
grants were located. So that information was genuinely, objectively, good
information, and something that I'm proud of, because these small charities
that're out there serving the poor, whether secular or faith-based, it was
Now, those conferences, which cost probably $350,000 each, were also held in
strategically-targeted states. They were held in and around battleground
states, specifically targeted for the 2004 presidential race. So, you know, I
mean, how political was it? Well, you know, there was one that was held,
apparently, 10 days before the presidential election in, of all places, Miami,
GROSS: You write that one of the premises of the Faith-Based Initiative was
that government regulations on religious organizations were too restrictive.
And you say finding these examples became a huge priority. If President Bush
was making the world a better place for faith-based groups, we had to show it
was a bad place to begin with, when in fact it wasn't that bad at all.
Mr. KUO: That's exactly right. We worked very hard to come up with examples
for discrimination, because obviously the more examples we had, the worse the
problem was. And the worse the problem was, the more that we could do, the
more that we could, you know, talk about it.
And, you know, one particularly contentious issue was this issue of the right
of religious organizations to hire and fire based on faith. Now actually
preserved in the civil rights act is this right, upheld unanimously by the
Supreme Court. That says, if you're a Buddhist organization, you don't have
to hire a Scientologist. If you're a Baptist, you don't have to hire a
Zoroastrian. I mean, it simply makes sense; you have to be able to preserve
the religious character of these organizations.
What came into debate, however, was, early in 2001, House conservatives wanted
to insert new language into the bill about faith-based charities that wouldn't
simply allow people to hire and fire based on faith, but on, basically, how
seriously or validly they practiced that faith. So it became not just about
faith but about your lifestyle within that faith. And that, in a lot of ways,
was just a battle over gay rights.
GROSS: You said the president would announce faith-based initiatives that he
was funding, and it would sound very impressive, but the money would never
actually get spent. Give me an example.
Mr. KUO: The money would actually never get even fought for. This was the
thing that was the most common thing I saw within the Bush administration on
compassion program. A big grand announcement was made in front of a minority
audience or with minorities in the background in big manors, you know, drug
treatment or, you know, trying to help youth violence or gangs or prisoners.
And just an extraordinary presentation. It all looked really good on
television; it looked good everywhere else. It sounded wonderful.
The problem was with follow-up. There wasn't any. After the grand
announcement, what the White House knew was it didn't have to follow up. The
White House understood the media cycle. And it understood that if it made a
grand announcement on compassion, it would look good for the evening news. It
would look good for cable news. And it wouldn't be up there very long. That
would give the impression that compassion was important and the president was
committed to compassion. But in terms of following up, you know, how many
people follow up on budget numbers? How many people follow up on
appropriations? How many people follow up on how much money gets spent?
And they knew that that wasn't going to happen. They knew the media cycle was
so frenzied and so rushed that no one would follow it.
GROSS: Another example you give in terms of funding is a gang prevention
initiative. And the funding for that was supposed to total $50 million over
three years. You say the obvious inference was that the money would be new
spending, but it wasn't new spending. The money was taken out of something
else. Where was the money coming from?
Mr. KUO: This is one of the things that really set me over the edge in terms
of my willingness to speak out. This is a ground announcement in the State of
the Union, you know. He did this great lead up to gang violence initiative,
talked very beautifully and movingly about it and announced--was it 50 million
over 90 million?--whatever it is, over three years. And I called in the next
day to listen to the conference call to describe it by the people who were
with the administration. And by the end, a reporter asked, `OK, well, where
is the money coming from? Where is it in the budget? Is it new money, is it
this?' And they hemmed and they hawed, and finally one of them said, `Well,
no, it actually comes out of this thing called the Compassion Capital Fund.'
Well, I just sat there, and I was just like one of those cartoon characters
where you know, where the anvil drops on his head or smoke comes out of his
ears or both, and it, you know, it was everything personified, because the
Compassion Capital Fund itself, which had been this grand promise of $200
million a year, you know, had been pitifully funded. And now they were
cannibalizing this pitifully funded program to announce another grand new
The president appeared the next day in Pittsburgh with the first lady and
spoke movingly about this gang violence initiative. And it was all really a
charade. And, you know, years later, now, you know, a very small part of that
has been funded as well.
And it just strikes me that, you know, for my own motivations in politics,
what I care about and what I think Jesus cares about in politics--the
poor--it's a betrayal.
GROSS: One of the points that you make in your book that has gotten the most
attention is you say national Christian leaders receive hugs and smiles in
person, and then, after they were dismissed, behind their backs they were
described as ridiculous, out of control, and just plain goofy. Would you give
me an example of what you observed that led you to this conclusion?
Mr. KUO: You know, it's funny. When I wrote that, it was one of those
things that I thought was one of the most obvious and least controversial
things, because everybody who's been involved, honestly involved in Republican
politics has seen this over and over and over again. But it was a warning to
Christians, to say, `Hey, listen, this image has been foisted upon you that
President Bush is the pastor-in-chief.' That's how evangelicals have been
primarily appealed to by the White House. And then I said, `You need to be
aware that that isn't the case. You know, that national Christian leaders,
you know, who come in and, you know, are appealed to and are being seduced by
the White House. Behind their backs they just--their eyes rolled and, you
know, smirky statements are made and, you know, they're people who are
tolerated, not people who are genuinely loved.'
And that's one of the reasons that I wrote that. Again, I wrote it without
thinking that this is going to be some great hoo-ha.
GROSS: You describe something called "the call," which is a regular
conference call from the White House, I believe, to update the evangelical
community, while soliciting their feedback. Would you describe the call and
how it was used?
Mr. KUO: There is a regular conference call with evangelical leaders, you
know, the ones most people have heard about, you know, to try and quote
unquote solicit their input and get their advice, and make them feel like they
were a genuine part of the White House infrastructure. But the reality is the
calls were nothing more than ways to placate them and to make them feel good.
And, you know, I remember reading, actually Chuck Colson, who back in the
early 1970s, before he, you know, came to Jesus and did the whole prison
fellowship thing, talked about his own experience working with Christians in
the White House. And he said all the groups that he'd ever experienced, they
were the ones who were easiest to influence, and he wondered why. And he
said, most disturbingly, perhaps it is because they are the most easily
seduced by power. And that's what this White House believed about Christian
conservatives, and that's what the call was about.
And it's interesting because so many times I've seen it reported that this
conference call was this really important thing, that it showed how much
influence religious conservatives had when, in fact, it was the opposite. It
was like they were speaking into a microphone that was unplugged on the other
GROSS: So it was just--you're saying it was just to make evangelical leaders
feel connected as opposed to really caring what they had to say?
Mr. KUO: Yes, that's exactly right.
GROSS: My guest is David Kuo, author of the new book "Tempting Faith," and
former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. We'll
continue our interview and hear from his former boss who disagrees with him
after a break.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kuo, and he's written a
new memoir called "Tempting Faith," and it's about the period when he was the
deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. This is from 2001
to 2003. And he says in his memoir, basically, that the Office was used for
partisan purposes and that it cared more about politics than it did about
actually helping with the poor.
You know, after September 11th, Jerry Falwell said, "I really believe that the
paganists and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians
who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU,
People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America,
I point the finger in their face and say, `You helped this happen.'" So did
you think that he was, like, goofy and out of control and nuts when he said
that? I mean, he's a Christian leader. What was your response to him after
Mr. KUO: Well, it's extraordinary. It was one of the things that was this
jaw-dropping moment for me. I'll never forget it, it was after 9/11.
Everybody was working around the clock to put together this national day of
prayer and remembrance. And it's this moment where there was, remember, when
there was actual good will towards everybody. Everybody was getting along.
And we were sitting there after having worked all night, distributing tickets
for this event at the National Cathedral, and somebody comes in and says,
`Have you heard what Falwell said?' and they repeated what you just said, and
I remember sitting there going, `No, that's just, you know, that's funny.'
Someone like at The Onion or somewhere else, someone had said that. Because
certainly no one could actually say that. But they went, `No, no,' and they
assured me, and they pointed me to a Web site, and as I recount, I called Karl
Rove's office, and I said, `What do we do with this? Do we let him in? Do we
not?' And, you know, after a period of waiting, I heard back from his
assistant, `No, no, let him in, just tell him to avoid the cameras.'
GROSS: You know, as a leader of the Faith-Based Initiative, as somebody who
was in touch with a lot of the biggest, you know, conservative Christian
leaders in the United States, what, if any, responsibility did you feel you
had to stand up and say, `These things that Jerry Falwell just said, blaming
the ACLU, People for the American Way, and gays and lesbians for September
11th--oh, and abortion, blaming that as well--that we want to separate
ourselves from that. The rest of us don't believe it.' You know, did you feel
like you needed to, at the risk of alienating him, stand up and say, `We don't
believe that; we don't stand for that'?
Mr. KUO: Terry, that's a great point. And I had sort of started discussing
that moment with people. And I guess I said it to one too many people,
because I got a call from Karl Rove's office saying that, you know, Falwell
had faxed an angry fax to Karl Rove's office saying that I was spreading lies
about him, and Karl called and said I needed to call and apologize. I said in
protest, `But he actually said that.' And Karl said, `No, please just call and
make him go away.' And so I had to call Jerry Falwell, and I had to apologize
for saying these things. And it was one of the hard things to do, I sort of
felt burning inside that I was doing this. I wasn't apologizing for the sake
of Jesus, I was apologizing for the sake of politics. And that wasn't a good
GROSS: You know, President Bush is perceived as somebody who is very serious
about his religion, and who really as a born-again Christian, really relates
to evangelicals in America and to evangelical leaders in America, that he's
one of them, and there's this connection that they have that they didn't feel
with other presidents, not even quite with President Reagan. And yet you're
saying that you think the president wasn't really serious about the
faith-based initiative, that he used it for political means more than as a way
to actually help the poor. So what are your perceptions about how serious the
president has been about using his faith in a public way to serve the larger
Mr. KUO: You know, it's something I hope we have a chance to talk about,
because, you know, far more than being about the faith-based office, this
question about how a religion is mutilated is important, and you know, in
earlier chapters, I say President Bush's religious image is the most carefully
controlled part of his public image. I go back and recount in Austin, Texas,
right before he made his announcement for president in 1999. You know, he
gave two sermons at a United Methodist Church the night before and the morning
of, and part of the reason--and it was never covered by the mainstream media,
if you will. And, you know, part of the reason that he did that was it was
part of the underground campaign that was being launched for conservative
Christian support of him.
And it's an extraordinary story about what happened and how it was put
together, because you had to have made a network of evangelical pastors under
the radar screen recruiting other evangelical pastors to support him so
that--and they did so simply by recounting the story of his own conversion to
Jesus. What that did was, it allowed him to, by and large, not have to talk
about the divisive social issues during the 2000 campaign, to be able to talk
about compassion, and to be able to present himself as this different kind of
Republican. And it's a really important story.
GROSS: David Kuo will be back in the second half of the show. And we'll hear
from his former boss. Kuo's new book is called "Tempting Faith." I'm Terry
Gross, you're listening to FRESH AIR. And this is NPR, National Public Radio.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Kuo. From 2001
to 2003, he served as deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives. In his new book, "Tempting Faith," he says he
witnessed the Bush administration use religion for political ends and watched
Christian leaders be seduced by power. I asked Kuo what he wished the Office
of Faith-Based Initiatives had accomplished.
Mr. KUO: I think that all of us in the Faith-Based Office would've been
better served by fighting harder for this initiative. Not being happy just
getting the crumbs from the table, but really passionately fighting much
harder with the senior staff and with others to get the promises. And, you
know, one of the things I'm going to say here is there's been this perception
of being critical at all of the Faith-Based Office. I am not. The people who
work there are extraordinarily hard working people who care for the poor. We
were the little engine that tried. The little engine that could against a
White House that said, `Oh, no, you can't.' You know, and so this point is
broader than the Faith-Based Office. It's broader. It's much more about the
White House, about how they deal with people, and about the seduction of
Christians in politics.
GROSS: You're calling for a fast from politics. You think it's time for
religious groups now to disconnect from politics so that they are no longer
used for political ends and they could remain more truly committed to the
principals of their faith and what their faith tells them to do. Why are you
calling for this fast?
Mr. KUO: Well, as I recount, this journey of mine has been a journey of God
and politics from the time I was a kid up until now. And one of the things
that's most disturbing is the way God has being perceived now. You know, if I
say "Jesus," I think most people at the end of the radio will go, will think,
`OK, abortion, homosexuality, the Iraq war or maybe the estate tax.' And
that's really actually not what Jesus talked about.
And, you know, I think for, you know, the moms and dads out there, the people
who give money to Christian advocacy groups, to the RNC, what they want is
something really, you know, important. They want to try and make America
better. And they've been led to believe that somehow all of that can be
achieved through politics. All of it can be achieved particularly through
conservative politics. And you fast from something not because it's evil, but
because you want to step away and focus on something more spiritual.
And I really would love to see a period of time for a couple of years where
evangelical voters stopped giving to all of these political groups and started
giving to the poor, you know, started giving their time to after-school
programs, started, you know, doing two things that Jesus said, like loving
your neighbor and--and again, redirecting that money towards the poor. And I
think that it would provide some needed perspective on the political
GROSS: And I should mention here that you started off, in your political
life, as a liberal Democrat. You worked for the Michael Dukakis presidential
campaign. You were an intern to Senator Ted Kennedy. What was the transition
point for you, from going from liberal Democrat to conservative Christian?
Mr. KUO: You know, it's something I really hadn't talked about before this
book, but in college, I got a woman pregnant. I was 18 years old or so. And
we were kids, and all of a sudden we were faced with this. And we decided to
have an abortion. And it was a hard thing to go through. And I never thought
much about abortion. Neither of us had lived through it, but neither one of
us really wanted to be parents, and it seemed like this was the way to go.
And so, you know, we went and we had an abortion. And we were assured that,
you know, this is really not that big a deal.
But afterwards, I just--it was befuddling and confusing and I didn't know what
to make of it, you know. It was this--was it this crime against my faith?
You know, was it what some people were saying at the time, a murder, and was I
a murderer? And, you know, I sort of, you know, I tried to deal with that.
And one of the ways I did was try to look at facts and to say, `OK, what
happens in a child's--in a fetus' development?'
And that's the thing that ultimately drove me, by accident, to the
Republicans. Because, you know, I ended up sort of incorporating abortion
into a philosophy at the time that said, `I am against the death penalty. I
am in favor of supporting the poor. And I'm pro-life.' I sort of tried to
take a position that said, `In all choices, I want to choose life.'
When I came to Washington at the time in 1990, I expected, OK, I'd continue to
be a Democrat, and I'd work for, you know, a Democrat who was against the
death penalty and so on and so forth. But I went there and no Democrats would
hire me. And then I went to try and find Republicans, and they looked at my
resume and said, `Oh, my goodness.' You know? `You're clearly a wacko
liberal,' and they wouldn't hire me. And so I actually ended up working for a
year for the National Right to Life Committee, which was the pro-life group
out there, and that was my entree into this world of Republican and Christian
conservative politics. It was a world that I definitely entered by accident.
GROSS: Your new memoir begins with you getting diagnosed with a brain tumor,
and this was just a couple of years ago. And they did the surgery, they got
out what they could, but the doctor told you it's likely that at some point
this is going to grow back. And it was cancerous. So they told you at some
point, it would likely grow back. It might be soon, it might be much, much
later in life. You don't know.
So how directly did that affect your decision to come out, so to speak, and
share with the public your reservations about the Bush administration and your
concerns about how the Faith-Based Initiative Office was used?
Mr. KUO: Directly. You know, I think I have a very acute understanding of
what we all know, and that is life is short. And trying to put things off too
long can sometimes not be a very good idea, and I suppose I've just become a
little less tolerant. And by that, I mean I've become a little less tolerant
of people saying one thing and doing another, particularly when it comes to
matters of faith. Particularly when it comes to matters of serving the poor.
Because I'm now much more concerned about the spiritual than I am the
political. And I'd much rather stand up and say, `Hey, you know what? Let's
focus more on the spiritual, less on the political.' Because the political,
really, is butchering the faith that I care so much about.
GROSS: What kind of response are you getting from the White House, from
conservatives, and from friends of yours, who you've worked with over the
years on faith-based initiatives?
Mr. KUO: The White House has been trotting out a couple of people who used
to work there to sort of be the anti-David people. And I'm getting calls from
journalist friends who say, you know, `The long knives are out for you; be
careful.' But you know, this stuff isn't, you know, it hurts, but it's not
surprising. You know, there are some friends who're being deeply supportive,
who said, `This is just fantastic. Keep doing it.' You know, there are others
who think, who act as if I have committed, you know, not a political act but
an act of heresy and that I am a blasphemer now. And somehow equating
President Bush with God, something that I think is untrue.
And we'll just--we'll see what happens, but this is something in which I
believe so passionately that it's worth doing, and it's worth having this
discussion. And I know that a lot of people on the conservative side are
saying, `Oh, well he's trying to undermine the election, and this is a grand
conspiracy to release the book three weeks before the election.' And to that I
say two things: one, I have great concerns for American democracy if I'm
going to influence an election; and the second is that, you know, I'm glad the
book was released now because this is a time when people are paying attention
to these matters, and if I stand up and say this now, I hope people will
listen. I hope people will read. And more than anything, I hope people will
think and that a conversation gets started.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KUO: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: David Kuo is the former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based
and Community Initiatives, and he's the author of the new book "Tempting
Faith." One of the people who disagrees with his conclusions is Jim Towey, his
former boss at the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. We'll talk with Towey
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jim Towey, a former head of the Office of Faith-Based
Initiatives, refutes points made by David Kuo about the hypocrisy
of the Bush administration and its supposed support of the poor
TERRY GROSS, host:
Earlier in our show, David Kuo described how he witnessed the Bush
administration use religion for political ends. Kuo's former boss at the
Office of Faith-Based Initiatives says that Kuo has it wrong. Jim Towey
directed the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives from 2002 until May of this
year. This month, Towey was inaugurated as the president of St. Vincent
College in Pennsylvania.
Jim Towey, welcome to FRESH AIR. David Kuo says that, you know, the president
would announce faith-based initiatives that would sound very impressive and
sound like he was going to fund them with a lot of money, but the money often
would not materialize.
Mr. JIM TOWEY: Well, the president, I think, pushed whenever he could push.
When you look at his record, he kept every promise he made on the faith-based
initiative, beginning with his first, which was that he would ask for at least
$8 billion his first year in charitable giving incentives and in new funding
for programs. And he did. And it took six years before we got those
charitable giving incentives enacted into law. I mean, he's not king. He has
to work with Congress. And there was not as much enthusiasm, perhaps, on the
Hill as there was at the White House for the initiative.
I also think there's an error when people look at the faith-based initiative
and think it's going to be a big spending initiative, and I think that's one
of the fundamental misconceptions of what David had in his book, is that
somehow the president was going to campaign as a Republican and come be a
big-spending Democrat. And he wasn't. And I say that as a Democrat.
I mean, I think it's a healthy debate to talk about whether our country is
paying attention to the needs of the poor. And I tend to think that we need
to do more. But on the issue of whether the president kept his word, and
whether he went forward with aggressive initiatives which now have garnered
over $740 million in funds, new programs that didn't exist when he took
office, I think it's a very respectable record, and I think he's made steady
progress, and he's going to continue on it.
GROSS: David Kuo mentions "the call," which is a regular conference call, a
weekly conference call from the White House to the evangelical community, and
the official goal was to solicit the feedback of the community and to keep
them updated about what the White House was planning. But Kuo says that the
call wasn't really taken seriously by the White House, it was like giving them
a microphone that wasn't plugged in. It was just a way to make them feel
connected without actually taking seriously what they have to say. What's
Mr. TOWEY: Well, it's strange to hear that from someone that left the White
House praising the president and praising the integrity and honesty of
everyone that he worked with. I was on that call once or twice, maybe three
times in four years. It wasn't a call that I participated in unless I was
briefing religious leaders. This was something that was done out of the
political side of the White House, keeping organizations and individuals just
tuned in to what we do, whether they support us or not. And to try to allege
that in fact it was just a ruse, that to me's a very cynical take on it.
Now there've been people in the White House that viewed it that way, and maybe
David viewed it that way. And I think, you know, talk to the ministers and
look at the record of what the White House accomplished, but I just think that
you can't on one hand leave the White House and say that you worked with
people with great integrity and honesty and then on the other hand come back
and say they're doing these kind of cynical things.
GROSS: One of the things Kuo says in his book that has gotten a lot of
attention is that people in the Bush administration like hugged religious
leaders in person and smiled at them, but then behind their backs, would...
Mr. TOWEY: They were putting whoopee cushions out.
GROSS: Well, would call them ridiculous and goofy.
Mr. TOWEY: I just, you know, it's completely at odds with everything I saw
in four and a half years. Again, perhaps at the junior level, perhaps with
young aides there was this kind of shenanigan, but when--the problem with the
book is, it gives the impression this was happening at the high levels of the
White House. And I never saw it. The president set the tone. He had great
respect for all the different religious leaders of our country. And I saw him
in meetings, and then I'd see him before the meeting and after the meeting.
And I never saw the slightest bit of being two-faced, which is what the book
And again, when you don't name names, when you don't identify individuals, it
really begs the question, `Well, who exactly is he talking about?' But when
you say it was in Karl Rove's office, clearly you're trying to allow the
impression that this was somewhere high up in the White House, and I just
again find that very hard to accept, that kind of accusation of hypocrisy.
The reality is, evangelical leadership in this country agreed with President
Bush on some things, disagreed on others, and they're not a political party.
They have their own issues and agenda, but in terms of their interaction with
the White House, there were times when they'd be upset with us and we with
But there was also some deep mutual respect, and in fact friendship with guys
like Rick Warren and Dr. Dobson and Chuck Colson. These are people I'm proud
to call friends.
GROSS: Let me ask you a question that I also asked David Kuo. Kuo quotes
something that Falwell said that has since become very famous. After the
attacks of September 11th, Jerry Falwell said that the attacks were because
God was angry with pagans, gays, lesbians, abortionists, feminists, the ACLU,
and People for the American Way.
What was your reaction when he said that? You know, as somebody who had a
leadership position, who was in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, as
somebody who was working with conservative evangelical leaders like Jerry
Falwell, what was your response to that?
Mr. TOWEY: Well, that would be an example of where we would be in
disagreement. As I recall, the president put out a statement, or the White
House put out a statement to that effect, that we did not share that view at
all. I never met with Reverend Falwell the entire time I was there at the
White House, so I don't know what others might've said to him personally.
But I certainly think that there were times when you'd hear statements and
you'd scratch your head and you'd realize that this wasn't a helpful statement
if it was about Islam or if it was about issues like this at a time like
September 11th, but you also had occasions where we were in complete agreement
with some of the statements that our evangelical friends were saying. So this
was the kind of thing where there were times when there was disagreement and
times of agreement.
GROSS: What would you offer as one of the greatest accomplishments during
your watch under the faith-based initiative and one of your greatest
Mr. TOWEY: Accomplishments would be that the president has changed the
culture on how faith-based organizations are treated in the public square.
Hundreds of new groups are getting federal grants, the focus is more on
results. And you look at a program like the Access Recovery Program the
president started that's received hundreds of millions of dollar and now
addicts actually have choice in where they're treated. Instead of being
channeled to, you know, failing programs that've failed them, they focus now
on recovery. So there were a lot of new programs started, $740 million of new
We also saw it take root in the heartland. We have over 30 governors with
faith-based offices, including at least a dozen that are Democratic governors.
And I went to Democratic governors' states and was with Janet Napolitano in
Arizona and I was Governor Granholm's faith-based conference, keynoted affair,
Governor Blanco in Louisiana. So we were very even-handed in reaching out.
I'm proud of that.
I'm proud that it was upheld in court. No constitutional challenge on it. We
were upheld on issues that we felt were important. So those were the proud
I guess in terms of frustration, you would see the politics swirl around the
issue, and it got frustrating. And I know that on the charitable giving
legislation, it took six years before we could get something as simple as a
deduction for individuals of individuals with retirement accounts to be able
to give those to charity. That took six years to get. So there were times
when that got quite frustrating.
And then I think one thing that perhaps David and I view differently is that
September 11th really did change the landscape. I mean, he can say, `Well, it
wasn't a priority before September 11th or not,' but I think that's a little
flippant, because the reality is the budget redirected hundreds of billions of
dollars. You also had Katrina. You also had the deficit pressures. And so
there were a lot of things that really squeezed the discretionary dollar. And
so that was frustrating, because there were often new pilot programs that we
would've liked to have had on a larger scale, so I was there for those years.
And for people like David that worked in the office before September 11th,
they were so accustomed to the buzz and to the light that I don't think they
ever adjusted after September 11th to the new landscape.
GROSS: Why did you leave the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives?
Mr. TOWEY: Well, I had a wonderful opportunity to go to St. Vincent's
College, this little Catholic Benedictine college in the foothills of the
Laurel Mountains in Pennsylvania near Latrobe, and so it was a wonderful
opportunity. And quite frankly, the president deserves some fresh legs. I
had been there for four years and four months and I think he deserves the
benefit of new energy. Like a lot of people at the White House that were
there for most of the first term, it is a grueling pace. I have five
children. So that was definitely something where I felt I needed a change,
and this wonderful opportunity came up and I'm happily with the 1700 students
at a great, great college.
GROSS: I know I'm not the only person interviewing you about your response to
the David Kuo book. So now that you're in a much quieter, academic setting,
do you feel you're being drawn back into the Washington maelstrom?
Mr. TOWEY: I do a little. I feel like I've come out of retirement, you
know. I feel like Roger Clemens or something coming in late.
But the reality is, some of the charges really went to the heart of the
integrity of what we did. And they allowed so many different false
impressions of what took place that I just felt in good conscience I couldn't
sit back and say nothing. Because I was really proud of what we accomplished
with the faith-based initiative. I felt we made real progress and we kept the
priority on the poor. And in this political minefield, we were even-handed.
And at the end of the day, at the end of my term, I had been in more
Democratic districts than Republican ones. And I had met with more public
officials that were Democrats than Republican ones.
So I think, when you look at the unique character of what we actually
accomplished, it was very hard for us to take a book coming out by someone
that had worked within the White House and had left very happily and saying
wonderful things, then coming out a couple weeks before an election and
slamming the president. It just didn't seem right.
GROSS: Jim Towey, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TOWEY: Great being on with you, Terry.
GROSS: Jim Towey is the former director of the Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives and is the new president of St. Vincent College in
Earlier, David Kuo described how he thinks the Bush administration has used
religion and the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives for political ends. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Maureen Corrigan describes Daniel Mendelsohn memoir "The
TERRY GROSS, host:
Daniel Mendelsohn is an acclaimed literary critic and the author of a memoir
called "The Elusive Embrace." His new work of nonfiction is called "The Lost."
It's about his five-year search for information about six of his family
members who died in the Holocaust. "The Lost" is part detective story, part
travelogue, part scholarly meditation, part family memoir. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan says that although "The Lost" may be hard to categorize, it's
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: "If you didn't have an amazing story, you didn't
survive." That's what one Holocaust survivor dismissively tells Daniel
Mendelsohn. She's warning Mendelsohn, her interviewer and much younger
friend, against sentimentality. But she's also illuminating an essential
problem with Holocaust testimony. Yes, these stories of the survivors are
amazing; that's why the tellers lived to tell their tales. But we
contemporary listeners and readers now expect to be awed by Holocaust stories,
and consequently we've become somewhat jaded to the horrors, the heart-rending
acts of courage, the twists of fate that mark these accounts. How do you
write a true story about the Holocaust and lead your readers through it so
that they're feeling and thinking anew?
That's the challenge that Mendelsohn rises to in his epic book "The Lost."
Through meticulous, even obsessive, scholarship and detective work, Mendelsohn
unearths and reconstructs the lives of six people in his own family who died
in the Holocaust. As Mendelsohn makes us readers realize, the survivors
aren't the only ones with amazing stories. Many of those who perished also
had amazing stories they didn't get the chance to tell.
"The Lost" is a big, frantic book. It's intertwined stories race over decades
and continents. Mendelsohn tracks down fast-disappearing friends and
neighbors of his murdered family members in Sweden, Israel, Australia, and the
little town called Belchatow claimed for part of the 20th century by Austria,
then Poland, then others, where his mother's family came from.
Mendelsohn's story is rooted, however, in the mundane, in the sights and
sounds of jokes with Yiddish punchlines, Milton Berle on black and white TV
sets, and packets of Tums. In other words, it's rooted in the visits he, his
parents, and siblings would pay to elderly relatives living in Miami Beach
during the 1960s. Here's the first sentence of Mendelsohn's book, which
describes those visits:
"Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would
occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin
The old people cried, Mendelsohn learned, because he looked so much like his
Grandpa Abe's oldest brother, Schmiel, who along with his wife and four
daughters were killed in the Holocaust. When Grandpa Abe dies, the
then-20-year-old Mendelsohn discovers letters folded away in Abe's wallet,
letters written in 1939 from Schmiel begging his brother to find a way to get
him and his family out of Poland.
Those letters, the memory of those weepy Miami Beach gatherings, his
grandfather's mesmerizing tales of Belchatow, and the quirks of Mendelsohn's
own scholarly personality turn him into the fierce family archaeologist,
intent on rescuing what artifacts, what stories may be left about Schmiel and
That summary does as much justice to "The Lost" as say, describing Homer's
"Odyssey" as a story about a boat trip with detours. "The Oddysey," by the
way, is reference in "The Lost," as are Virgil's "Aenid" and the Old
Testament. Even though the individual fates of Schmiel and his family are
Mendelsohn's specific focus here, he calls upon his scholarly background to
make unpretentious and enlightening parallels between, say, the murderous
hatred directed towards the Jews before and during World War II by their
once-brotherly Ukrainian and Polish neighbors in Belchatow and the Biblical
story of Cain and Abel, also a tale about fratricidal resentments that become
But the most stunning aspect of Mendelsohn's book is his vexed commitment to,
as he says, "learn whatever scraps of details about Schmiel and his family
might be knowable."
Mendelsohn, as I've said, is an intellectual. He's hip to the fact that the
word "fact" oftentimes needs to be put in quotation marks. But "The Lost" is
informed by Mendelsohn's anxious sense of obligation to his murdered
relatives, and an obligation not to just turn them into puppets to be
manipulated for the purposes of a good story. Even though he also knows that,
inevitably, this manipulation will sometimes happen in the course of his
Mendelsohn's dedication to ferreting out the truth, however imperfect, is
rewarded by the end of "The Lost," implicitly paying tribute to his Grandpa
Abe, the master storyteller, whose sweeping tales would unify and narrow into
a breathtaking finish. Mendelsohn ends his story by finding the place he's
been looking for for decades, a narrow hole in the ground, a box-like hiding
place, an ark of sorts that for a brief time sheltered members of his family
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Lost" by Daniel Mendelsohn.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross and this is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.