Sometimes, George W. Bush sounds like a guy who belongs less in the White House than in a romance novel. Bill Clinton will be remembered for his lust, but Bush is the one obsessed with matters of the heart.
He once named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, “because he changed my heart.” Unveiling his faith-based initiative last month, he declared, “Real change happens street by street, heart by heart, one soul, one conscience at a time.” After liberals attacked John Ashcroft, Bush pulled out an electrocardiogram and informed the nation, “He’s a man who has got a good and decent heart.” When Gale Norton was accused of defending slavery, he scoffed, “That’s just a ridiculous interpretation of what’s in her heart.”
Maybe it’s wise to avoid appointees whose hearts, like that of the Grinch, are two sizes too small. But Bush has a way of saying, “He’s got a good heart” as if he were saying, “He’s got a Nobel Peace Prize,” suggesting we should marvel at this rare and priceless commodity. If he means it to denote a basic decency and ability to identify with the problems of others, the trait should be regarded as standard equipment in a Cabinet officer—like the ability to speak English and eat with a knife and fork—rather than an exceptional qualification. If, on the other hand, he means a good heart to suggest something approaching saintliness, then it may indicate that the owner would be better off ministering to the lame and the halt than engaging in horse-trading with Sens. Robert Torricelli and John Breaux.
The president uses “heart” as a shorthand version of “compassionate conservative.” It serves dual purposes. The first is to assure liberals that he’s different from such flinty right-wingers as fellow Texan Phil Gramm—who once answered his critics by insisting that he did indeed have a heart: “I keep it in a glass jar on my desk.” Hard-core conservatives are often denounced by the left as mean-spirited agents of hate. Bush wants everyone to know he’s firmly, unapologetically on the side of love.
The second purpose, equally important, is to signal to conservatives that though he is overflowing with the milk of human kindness, Bush has no truck with the notion that you can measure our compassion by adding up the entitlement budget. When liberals talk about their concern for people in need, it’s a prelude to demands for new or expanded government programs. When Bush does it, it’s a substitute for them. It’s his way of borrowing Clinton’s sentiment—”I feel your pain”—while spurning Clintonesque solutions.
Bush is not about to repeat the mistakes of Bob Dole, who had all the empathy of a C-SPAN feed, or the elder George Bush, whose idea of expressing solidarity with the unfortunate was to announce, “Message: I care.” He’d rather err on the side of indulging our growing national tendency to overemote. His strategy parallels the approach Jack Kemp used with such durable success: Talk like a liberal and vote like a conservative. Why make either side feel excluded? Meanwhile, you can give those in the middle reason to think that, even though you surround yourself with people like Ashcroft and Norton, you’re really the mildest of moderates.
Republicans used to look for leaders with such physical traits as a clear head, a steely gaze, and a sturdy backbone—all necessary to avoid being gulled or overpowered by the weepy pleadings of the opposition. Democrats once admired champions with a pugnacious spirit and a hearty disdain for the privileged. Now both shy away from anyone who might be accused of not being nice.
But both sides really ought to take a dim view of Bush’s incessant references to blood-pumping organs. Conservatives are traditionally wary of any rhetoric implying that good intentions are paramount—a conceit they have long ascribed to liberals. Welfare reform was portrayed as callous and brutal, but if it succeeds in getting poor people to overcome dependency and become permanent, upwardly mobile members of the labor force, then Nick Lowe was right: You gotta be cruel to be kind. As a dispassionate economist and follower of Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan has never heard anyone pay tribute to his boundless love for all God’s chillun. Instead of trumpeting his concern for salt-of-the-earth working folks, he’s merely helped provide a record span of noninflationary economic growth that has kept them employed and raised their living standards. Would those at the bottom of the economic ladder have been better off with a Fed chairman who is overcome by emotion when the fight against inflation requires a short-term loss of jobs?
Liberals, by the same token, should have little patience with Bush’s pretense that decent and humane individuals will advance only decent and humane goals. The fact that John Ashcroft generously accommodates a Jewish employee’s refusal to work on the Sabbath will be cold comfort to non-Christians if he pushes to permit officially sponsored prayer in public schools. Jesus assured us that by their fruits you shall know them, and the important fruits of the Justice Department are the policies it pursues, not the admirable personal qualities of the attorney general. We all know Gale Norton has a heart. But does it beat for the spotted owl?
The ultimate problem with being informed that a government official has a good heart is that, even assuming it’s true, we learn nothing useful. You feel deep concern for those at the bottom of the income scale who could use more help from the government? Bush’s heart goes out to taxpayers who he says are already overburdened. He says, “It’s compassionate to give people their own money back.” Both sentiments are perfectly valid, but neither sheds much light on the wisdom of a given policy. To decide if and how to help the poor requires the deployment of an organ not known as Bush’s favorite—the brain.
All this talk may make a refreshing change for Americans weary of the Tom DeLay-Newt Gingrich school of scorched-earth rhetoric. But W. should understand that hearts and flowers can get cloying pretty fast. That’s why Valentine’s Day only comes once a year.