Chapter 1: Heroic Conservatism
Sometimes in government the most dramatic and noble events come disguised as endless meetings, what might be called the banality of goodness.
The president sat as usual in his blue-and-yellow striped chair at the right of the fireplace in the Oval Office. Much of his senior staff gathered on couches and chairs around the coffee table. The topic for this “policy time” on the afternoon of November 18, 2002 was a proposal that had been kept carefully hidden from much of the government: an emergency plan to provide AIDS treatment and prevention to Africans on a massive scale. Four months before, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten had given instructions to experts at the National Institutes of Health to “think big.” The plan under discussion, crafted by a brilliant NIH researcher named Mark Dybul, was designed to reach two million people with lifesaving drugs, prevent seven million new infections, and provide compassionate care to ten million AIDS victims and the orphans they leave behind. It would be the largest health initiative to combat a single disease in history.
As the plan was developed, only a few people were brought in on the secret. The small team at NIH working on the project had been instructed by the White House to talk to no one. At early stages, not even the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, or the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, had been informed. Bolten, his staff, researchers at the National Institutes of Health, and I were engaged in a humanitarian conspiracy, to prevent an ambitious plan from being watered down or bogged down in the normal, inertial processes of government.
The plan was not only ambitious; it was controversial. Smaller attempts to ramp up AIDS treatment in Africa had accomplished little. In Botswana, a three- year effort had resulted in only two hundred people on AIDS drugs. When eventually informed about the final NIH plan, officials at the Office of Management and Budget and some officials at the National Security Council were highly skeptical. At fifteen billion dollars over five years, the plan cost too much. The infrastructure to deliver drugs did not exist. This kind of foreign-aid spending had never been done successfully before; why would this be an exception? The Centers for Disease Control, smarting at not being consulted, dismissed the approach as “half-baked.”
In the Oval Office, the president focused on the details of implementation in a businesslike manner, attempting to poke holes in the proposal. “It doesn’t matter how good the goal is if it doesn’t work. Will this work?” The policy experts responded by describing an innovative network model, which would deliver drugs through layers of satellite medical centers, even by motorcycle to distant villages. Unlike past foreign-aid programs, the plan would set specific goals, and tie money to performance. At least we would know if it worked or it didn’t.
This emphasis on the treatment of AIDS in the developing world was the great risk and originality of the plan. Global health experts, to that point, had generally put their hope in prevention. People with AIDS were considered already lost, extending their lives a costly, uncertain venture, and a poor investment. On this issue, during the meeting, Condoleezza Rice showed a rare flash of emotion: “My mother,” she said, “was diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager. She got treatment, and lived until I was thirty. You bet those years meant something to me—and they would mean something to every African child whose mother lives to take care of them.”
The discussion of detail had given way, for me, to a sense of history. During the twentieth century, in other government meetings, in other rooms in Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing, political decisions were calmly debated and made that resulted in genocide and the deaths of millions. Now, in a room where I sat, a decision was pending that could save the lives of millions. It was a vivid reminder of the reach and influence of America: the futures of men, women, and children in African slums and remote villages who would never know our names might depend on the words spoken in the Oval Office that day. President Bush went around the room, asking for conclusions. Most supported the plan; the keepers of the budget opposed. At the last, he came to me. “Gerson, what do you think?”
“If we can do this, and we don’t,” I said, “it will be a source of shame.” As the meeting broke up in a solemn quiet, the president cheerfully mocked, “That’s Gerson being Gerson!”
Six weeks later, President Bush took his motorcade up Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver the State of the Union, a serious speech, ending with a long indictment against the dictator of Iraq: “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.” No one expected Africa or AIDS to make an appearance. Among the White House staff, there had been a determined, last-minute attempt to remove the proposal. (“Americans don’t want to hear about giving money to foreigners; they care about kitchen- table issues that affect their families.”) But the president kept it in, and spoke these words:
Today, on the continent of Africa, nearly thirty million people have the AIDS virus—including three million children under the age of fifteen. There are whole countries in Africa where more than one- third of the adult population carries the infection. More than four million require immediate drug treatment. Yet across that continent, only 50,000 AIDS victims—only 50,000—are receiving the medicine they need.
Because the AIDS diagnosis is considered a death sentence, many do not seek treatment. Almost all who do are turned away. A doctor in rural South Africa describes his frustration. He says, “We have no medicines. Many hospitals tell people, you’ve got AIDS, we can’t help you. Go home and die.” In an age of miraculous medicines, no person should have to hear those words.
Ladies and gentlemen, seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many.… To meet a severe and urgent crisis abroad, tonight I propose the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa. … I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.”
In my time at the White House, these were not the most eloquent words I helped write for the president of the United States, but they were the most satisfying.
Less than three years later, outside Kampala, Uganda, my Jeep neared the end of a long dirt road, where I was met by an escort of two dozen women who sang and danced in front of my car for a quarter of a mile to a squatter’s camp called the Ajoli quarter. At a small clinic, I met Rose, a Ugandan nurse who runs an AIDS ministry called Meeting Point International, supported in part by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The Ajoli quarter is the home of striking contrasts. The village is really a densely populated slum, with mud houses and open sewers. A great tide of central Africa’s problems and horrors has lapped up on the side of this steep Ugandan hill. Ninety percent of the residents are women or children, refugees from up north, where a brutal, cultish rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army killed large numbers of the men. Many of the women are HIV positive, and have terrible stories of suffering. A young woman I met had been abducted by the LRA along with other members of her village. She calmly described their first night’s “welcoming meal,” in which one of the villagers was killed, and the rest were forced to eat him, to instill a proper fear.
Many of the younger boys had been kidnapped by the LRA and trained as soldiers—forced, as Rose said, to do “terrible things,” such as cannibalism, and murdering neighbors in their home village so they could never return. One of the former child soldiers I met was maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. When the leader of the LRA, a messianic madman named Joseph Kony, visited his prisoners, all were forced to prostrate themselves—but this young man looked up in curiosity, and they took out one of his eyes as punishment.
But in this place of gathered suffering, I found a concentrated joy. About five hundred people greeted me with the strange and cheerful trilling typical of the region. A group of female dancers, in native skirts and bright orange tops, and a band of young male drummers in pink shorts and yellow shirts, did a raucous performance—and even when Rose tried to get them to stop, they went on with song after song. The performance was loud, slightly suggestive, and somehow holy, an act of defiance against violence and death and fear and despair. It felt like angels bringing happy, rowdy music to the gates of hell—and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
At the center of it all is Rose, a Christian, slightly plump Ugandan nurse who began using her own money to pay for school fees for former child soldiers, and for AIDS drugs for refugees—at that point she had about two hundred people on treatment. With outside support, she has opened a little clinic and a day-care center. She pays for taxis to get people to the hospital and goes there every Tuesday so her patients can see a friendly face. She organizes soccer games to demonstrate that women on AIDS treatment can become strong once again. And she encourages music and dance to fight the clinical depression many people with AIDS face. Rose does all this with a spirit of cheer that makes a slum feel like a celebration. They call her “Aunty Rose,” and everyone gets greeted and touched like her oldest friend. “They are not defeated by the sickness, poverty, and death,” she says of the refugees she serves. “They have a dignity and a value. They are children of God. What I give is because I love them.”
One woman’s story at Meeting Point is typical. Her husband infected her with HIV, and when she refused to abort their child, he left her. Her son eventually became sick and thin from HIV and TB. “The teacher insulted my youngest as a ‘skeleton,’ and threw a book at the boy. Whenever he was at the gate of the school, the children called him ‘skeleton’ again. He cried the whole night through. I didn’t know if he would die or I would die first.” Eventually, friends urged her to go to Meeting Point. At first, she says, “I thought I was in the wrong place. People were dancing, not miserable like me. I didn’t know in the whole world there was someone who would show me love.” Then, “They started to bring AIDS drugs for that boy. Almost immediately his condition changed, and he is happy and back in school. Now I fear nothing.” Now on AIDS treatment herself, she volunteers to help other HIV-positive women. “The one they wanted to bury is the one who is going to assist them,” she says. “We are here. We are kicking.”
The generosity of the poor turns out to be more impressive than anything we give them. At the center of the Ajoli quarter, a short walk through the red dirt streets, is a steep-walled, open-pit mine. Brush is pushed against the walls and set on fire, to remove water from the rock and cause it to crumble, leaving a permanent haze in the air. The women of the village support themselves by breaking rocks from the pit into gravel with small metal hammers. Each has her own pile she adds to for several hours a day. After Hurricane Katrina on America’s Gulf Coast, these women, many of them HIV positive, somehow collected $1,000 and sent it to the American embassy to help with relief efforts. When I thanked them on behalf of our government, I have never seen a group of people more proud of themselves. “We are the donors now,” I was told.
Near the end of the welcoming ceremony, one of the HIV-positive women gave me a piece of folded legal-sized paper, soiled with red clay. It read:
We [are the] patients and children of Meeting Point International. We want to express ourselves that we are the richest in the world. We are not poor. Kony came to free us and instead he cut our mouth, eyes and ears. Politicians came and gave us promises—we remained poor, sick, without hope. Some people came without any promises, stayed with us and loved us. That is why we are here. We are free. We want also to love others truly.
I came to that slum expecting to feel pity. Instead, I felt awe for people who are rich and free. Their final song, performed by women in purple dresses they had made themselves, was sadder than the ones before it. The chorus went: “Life is so sweet, but very short indeed.” Because of a political decision made seven thousand miles away, at least some of those lives were lengthened. And that means something. Because even in the haze of that mine, even in the shadow of death, life is so very valuable, so very sweet.
In that Oval Office meeting, and in the slums outside Kampala, I saw one of the high points of political idealism in modern history: an American president, out of moral and religious motivations, pledging billions to save the lives of non- citizens, with no claim to American help other than their humanity. It had a profound effect on me. Before meeting men, women, and children rescued from death in Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, and Mozambique, my appreciation of the power of government to do good had been largely theoretical. But here was the living, dancing evidence of what ambitious, moral, effective government can accomplish. Here was an example of what America can do and be in the world. And even if I were tempted, these experiences would not allow me to be cynical about politics.
Critics dismiss this as an aberration—an isolated act of compassion by a president normally obsessed by force and war. It is not an aberration. It is one expression—maybe the least controversial expression—of the organizing principle of the Bush era: an idealism of amazing historical ambition. President Bush’s religiously informed moralism, his impatience with political “small ball,” his indifference to establishment criticism, have combined to produce far- reaching changes in domestic and foreign policy; far-reaching changes in Republican Party ideology. Opponents may call those changes unwise, or poorly executed. It is difficult to call them inconsequential.
In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush did not merely pursue a popular fight against al-Qaeda terrorists. He conceived of a foreign-policy project as grand and difficult as the Cold War. He set out to remove dangerous, terror-sponsoring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and replace them with governments favorable to the War on Terror. He determined to undermine the appeal of radical Islam by promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East and other disputed parts of Africa and Asia. He has launched initiatives on disease and development to provide hopeful alternatives to bitterness and violence, increasing foreign assistance faster than any time since the Marshall Plan. And he has expressed these shifts in a frank moral language of right and wrong, good and evil. The stated, moral goal of his second inaugural, “the end of tyranny in our world,” is the most ambitious presidential statement on foreign policy since President Woodrow Wilson pledged to “make the world safe for democracy”— and it went beyond that pledge.
The domestic ambitions of the Bush era have been limited by competing international emergencies. But they have still included a major reform of the federal role in education; the addition of a massive prescription-drug benefit to Medicare; and the use of government to support the work of faith-based charities. Republicans who feel that the ideology of Barry Goldwater—the ideology of minimal government—has been assaulted are correct. And this has been accompanied by a strong reassertion of the central place of religion in our common life—not just as a source of comfort in times of tragedy, but also as a foundation for claims of universal human rights and dignity.
In more than five years as a speechwriter and policy advisor to President Bush, I took a hand in both defining and explaining these changes. The president, unlike many of his predecessors, consistently used major speeches to put his personal imprint on policy, to force changes within his own administration, and to set his doctrines in rhetorical stone, requiring future presidents to deal with them. The goals of the Bush presidency can be found in the text, not in the subtext—in the words he chose to use, not in maneuvering behind the scenes. In this process, he came to rely on me to help collect and express his intuitions. And I know that these ambitions were not merely rhetorical. They were intended as major departures from precedent. They were intended to inaugurate an era of idealism.
But as the Bush era comes to a close, a backlash has built. Many Americans have found the ambitions of the last few years exhausting; the costs higher than predicted; the promised successes delayed and distant. Cynicism, not idealism, is the order of the day. Is it credible to talk about the spread of democracy as Iraq divides into warring, sectarian camps? Or to stand for human rights after the pictures from Abu Ghraib? Isn’t the world too complicated and sensitive to slight for an American president to talk confidently about “good” and “evil”? Is government too discredited after the failures of Hurricane Katrina to address problems of poverty and racial division? Wouldn’t America be better off accepting our limits and lowering our sights?
After recent exertions, this attitude is predictable, even understandable. It is also dangerous. A retreat from idealism and ambition, at this point in our history, would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives, and for America.
This book is not an exhaustive history of the Bush years; that is a subject that will occupy many thicker volumes. I have a different purpose: to argue for idealism in a weary time. After five eventful years in the West Wing, I am convinced that the bold use of government to serve human rights and dignity is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing. I believe the security of our country depends on idealism abroad—the promotion of liberty and hope as the alternatives to hatred and bitterness. I believe the unity of our country depends on idealism at home—a determination to care for the weak and vulnerable, and to heal racial divisions by the expansion of opportunity. And I believe my party, the Republican Party, must carry this message of idealism and courage to a tired nation in a pivotal moment, or face a severe judgment of history.
There is no doubt that the times are weary. The backlash against idealism can be found in both American political parties.
Some Democrats, unbalanced by hatred of President Bush, have turned against the confident promotion of freedom in the world. At the time of the 2006 State of the Union address, a group of Democratic and liberal activists organized a viewing party to react to the speech. Every time President Bush used the words freedom or terror, or weapons of mass destruction, the organizers would ring a bell, and the crowd would laugh. In portions of the Democratic Party, just a few years after 9/11, terrorism is a source of humor, derided as a Republican myth, and the word freedom has become a laugh line.
On foreign policy, many Democrats do not know what they are doing, because they do not know what they are undoing. In order to undermine the current president, they are carelessly throwing away the tradition of President John F. Kennedy, who said that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” They are abandoning the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, who argued: “We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom of speeches and expression—freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—freedom from want—and freedom from terrorism. Is such a world impossible of attainment? [The] Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation and every other milestone of human progress—all were ideals which seemed impossible of attainment—yet they were attained.”
What can liberalism possibly mean apart from idealism in the cause of liberty? But that idealism is seldom a Democratic theme today. Some Democrats—there are notable exceptions—are left in a position of opposition without alternatives, of anger without hope, of criticism without idealism. And by offering no solutions of their own to the combination of Islamic radicalism and proliferation, they are asking Americans to passively accept a mortal threat.
The one issue where many Democratic leaders embrace an absolute commitment to liberty is abortion—but, in this case, they define liberty as the right of the strong to control and end the lives of the weak. And this has more to do with power and autonomy than compassion and the protection of human rights. During the 1999 congressional debate on partial-birth abortion—a procedure that violently ends lives during birth—Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer was pressed on the Senate floor to say she would oppose the medical killing of children after birth. She refused to commit, saying that children only deserve legal protection “when you bring your baby home.”
This frank defense of infanticide is the unconditional surrender of an older, better Democratic tradition. “The moral test of a government,” said Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1976, “is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” It requires a long and difficult search today to find that kind of moral idealism in the party of Hubert Humphrey.
And above all, many Democratic leaders have become resolutely secular. Its chairman, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, asserts, “My religion doesn’t inform my public policy.” Democratic activist George Soros complains, “The separation of church and state, the bedrock of our democracy, is clearly undermined by having a born again president”—effectively adding a new constitutional test for that office: a candidate must not only be born in America, he must only be born once. But it wasn’t long ago that the three-time Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan, was also the most prominent evangelical Christian in America—and no one saw a contradiction. Bryan called his support for progressive causes—from women’s rights, to safe working conditions, to progressive taxation— “applied Christianity.”
In fact, a rigid secularization would remove one of the main sources of social justice in American history—throwing away another inheritance that Democrats do not seem to value. In our history, religion has often been the carrier of conscience, the source of idealism and reform. It was religious faith that motivated abolitionists through decades of campaigning against slavery; that led young African American girls to risk abuse by sitting at segregated lunch counters; that put foot in front of foot toward police with truncheons on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Religion, for these Americans, taught objective standards of social justice, not merely personal standards of piety. In general, they believed all individuals had rights because those rights had an Author; that the endowment of this Creator was the source of human worth and the basis for human equality; and that these God-given rights deserved the protection of law. They were confident in the rightness of their cause—and in a Providence that eventually honors personal sacrifice in just causes, in this life or the next.
Among the main thinkers of modern liberalism, this resentment of traditional religion runs even deeper. For influential academics such as the late Richard Rorty of Stanford, the first purpose of education, and the prerequisite for liberal democracy, is to remove a religiously based belief in absolute right and wrong. The goal of teaching is to “arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views much like our own.” Parents should be warned that “we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” While religion may survive in some form— perhaps as “a religion of literature” that replaces Scripture—any kind of moral judgment must give way to the accepting, relativistic values of democracy. For many liberal thinkers, traditional religious beliefs are a threat to tolerance as the basis for public policy. Ethical relativism is the only answer to moral arrogance.
There is no doubt that religion can be the source of a false and intolerant political certainty. It is a mistake to believe there is a single biblical or moral view on issues like tax policy or missile defense. These are prudential matters, to be debated on their merits. On policy issues, there is often, as the saying goes, truth in my opponent’s error, and error in my own truth.
But this is different from asserting that truth itself is unreachable or relative. A philosophy of systematic skepticism and doubt has direct consequences for individuals and for a nation. If moral standards don’t exist for others, it is infinitely harder to impose any standards on ourselves—infinitely more difficult to fight the natural pull of selfish interest. Men and women are left without a compass, without a core, and often turn to the lonely pursuit of self. Who would want to call young people to a life of skepticism? What heroes would this creed create? Teaching tolerance to the young is essential. Yet tolerance, at its best, is a morally mandated respect for the lives and opinions of others, not neutrality between just and unjust, noble and base, good and evil.
And there are consequences for our political life, as well. If there are no truths we can know with certainty, there are no self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. Our national commitment to human dignity becomes one option among many. The deepest teachings of our conscience may be right … they may be wrong … they may be a construct of our culture … they may result from the chemistry of our brain. This view has many sophisticated advocates, but most heroes of conscience in American history could not be counted among them. “We are not wrong,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning.”
Interest, not justice, is the natural state of society. Justice is an achievement, always won through sacrifice. And that sacrifice is a result of our duties, not our doubts.
A backlash against idealism, in different forms, can also be found in the Republican Party. We are seeing a trend toward foreign-policy “realism,” which is deeply skeptical other countries can sustain democracy. Old foreign-policy hands such as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft argue that the promotion of liberty in the Middle East has disturbed “fifty years of peace.” He urges support for “stability” because elections are too risky. The “bad guys,” he says, “are always better organized.”
But “fifty years of peace” has seen several wars of aggression against Israel; and the region’s supposed “stability” produced the hijackers of 9/11. The Middle East’s mixture of tyranny, radicalism, and stagnation is not only toxic, it is explosive, resulting in the mass murder of American citizens on American soil. The status quo in the Middle East is not stable or sustainable. Whatever the complications that come from Iraq, they do not change the fundamental reality we face: unless change comes to the Middle East, it will continue to produce ideologies and people who kill our citizens; and the scale of that killing will increase as technology advances. We will have spreading freedom, or we will have spreading violence. The traditional responses of foreign-policy realism—the more effective management of favorable dictators—is the application of a band- aid to a cancer.
Many Republicans are also questioning activism and idealism on the domestic agenda, arguing that President Bush’s “big government conservatism” is the reason for recent political setbacks. One conservative commentator, after the Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006, talked of this silver lining: “At least compassionate conservatism is dead.” Now is the time, the argument goes, to get back to the real business of conservatism: cutting government.
I saw this governing vision—really a vision to reject governing—at work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The disaster revealed a kind of poverty that mocks our pledge to be “one nation.” In attempting to deliver benefits to victims, the administration found men and women who had never had a bank account, families entirely disconnected from the mainstream economy. A problem so clearly rooted in governmentally enforced oppression—generations of slavery and segregation—demanded an active response by government, to encourage economic empowerment and social mobility.
Yet the response of many Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Washington think tanks was to use the disaster as an excuse for reducing spending. Some Republican leaders proposed to offset the costs of Katrina by cutting the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors. By this odd logic, the repair of levees should be funded by taking drugs from old people. And there was worse. At one post-Katrina meeting with White House officials, a conservative think- tank sage urged: “The president needs to give up something he wants. Why not the AIDS program for Africa?” The argument here is stunning: that the best way for conservatives to prove their ideological purity is to let African children die.
This is different from a belief in limited government—a conviction that all conservatives share. It is a disdain for government itself, and a brutal indifference to the consequences of indiscriminately eliminating it. For Republicans headed toward important elections, this kind of crude anti- government message would be a political disaster. Campaigning on the evils of government while opponents talk of health care and education will seem, and be, small-minded, cold, and uninspired. And the question will naturally arise: “Why do you want to be captain of this ship when your goal is to run it onto the rocks?”
The moral stakes for the party are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American spare change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all. If Republicans run in future elections with a simplistic anti-government message, ignoring the poor, the addicted, and children at risk, they will lose, and they will deserve to lose.
· · · This is an odd and dangerous historical moment. Both political parties are exhausted and timid at just the wrong time—the very time when history is increasing its demands.
Over five years in the White House, I witnessed the arrival of a series of historical challenges, any one of which would strain the energy and creativity of an administration or a generation. I saw the beginnings of a global war on a clear, September day—a war in which any lapse of vigilance, on any future day, could bring more funerals and ruins and fear. Yet some Democrats have chosen this time to deny that America is in a war at all. During his campaign for president, Senator John Kerry preferred to call it “primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation.” It is the modern equivalent of running for office on the slogan: “Forget Pearl Harbor.”
I saw the unprecedented natural disaster of Katrina reveal a continuing form of brutal, economic segregation that will continue to discredit our ideals until it is overcome. I visited regions in Africa where millions are drowning in a sea of disease and violence—at a time when only America has the resources and national calling to help on the scale of the need. Yet some Republicans have chosen this time to call for a return to the narrow bounds of a minimal government.
I saw acts of liberation in Afghanistan and Iraq as noble as any in our history—and the rise of enemies who are using the tools of murder to reverse those verdicts, and turn those nations into battlefields. I saw autocrats in Iran learn to fear the momentum of democracy—then regroup and seek a nuclear prop for their power, raising the prospect of nightmares beyond imagining. Yet some foreign-policy realists, of every ideological background, have chosen this moment to call for retrenchment and retreat.
This is a strange way to prepare Americans for difficult, necessary tasks— like using liquor and luxury to train an athlete; or inculcating fear and caution in a commando; or replacing the call of a trumpet in battle with a kazoo. Weariness and doubt can be found and fed in any nation. But these mental attitudes do nothing to alter our historical challenges. Giving in to these tendencies, in our circumstance, is not “realism”; it is a surrender to sentiment at the expense of our values and our interests. Americans may be tired, but history doesn’t care.
This kind of historical moment is difficult, but not unprecedented. In the middle years of the Civil War, the North suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of a numerically inferior enemy. A peace movement gained momentum. President Lincoln fell into deep depression. One observer wrote: “Even Lincoln himself has gone down at last. Nobody believes in him any more.” “We are now on the brink of destruction,” concluded Lincoln. “It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Discouragement, in these circumstances, seemed reasonable—but a loss of nerve would have left a different country.
President Lincoln’s response was an act of idealism that dramatically increased the stakes of the war. Upstairs at the Executive Mansion, he took a document out of his tall hat and said to his cabinet: “I have prepared a small paper of much significance. I have said nothing to anyone, but I have made a promise to myself and my Maker. I am now going to fulfill that promise.” With a firm hand, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Later, he called it “the great event of the nineteenth century” and added, “It is a momentous thing to be the instrument, under Providence, of the liberation of a race.” The beginnings of the Cold War offer a similar example. Exhausted by more than 400,000 deaths in World War II, Americans suddenly faced an expanding, aggressive Soviet empire. The early stages of European reconstruction failed badly, leading to a winter of malnutrition. In 1946 and 1947, communists won 48 percent of the vote in Italy, 46 percent in France. President Truman feared the loss of Greece and Turkey to communist pressure, the collapse of Italy, the Russian occupation of the Mediterranean coast, and the fall of the Iron Curtain on “Bordeaux, Calais, Antwerp and The Hague.” It was, he later said, “hell and high water every day.” Discouragement seemed reasonable—but a loss of nerve would have shifted the early course of the Cold War, and resulted in a different world.
In these circumstances, President Harry Truman committed a tired nation to the defense of Greece and Turkey, declaring it “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He approved the Marshall Plan, to revive the failing reconstruction of Western Europe. When West Berlin was cut off in a blockade by Soviet forces, he declared, “We stay in Berlin, period.” American and Allied military planes flew more than 270,000 fights over the course of a year to deliver food, coal, and other supplies to a lonely, frightened city. And after a surprise invasion of South Korea from the north, Truman committed America to a bloody, unpopular, necessary, eventually stalemated Asian war, which cost Truman his popularity. “I remembered,” he said, “how each time the democracies failed to act it encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead.”
There are other examples. Lyndon Johnson, a southern president from a segregated state, witnessed the beating of protesters at Selma, Alabama, and called for a joint session. The entire Virginia and Mississippi delegations boycotted, but seventy million Americans watched on television as Johnson proposed an ambitious Civil Rights Act. He told the hushed Congress: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
“Should we defeat every enemy,” he continued, “and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, ‘What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’” President Ronald Reagan repudiated a tired policy of détente, and determined to seek victory, not a stalemate, in the Cold War. And he symbolized this shift by calling the Soviet government an “evil empire.” The dissident Natan Sharansky recalls: “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken a truth—a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
In each of these cases, objections were raised: Emancipation was divisive and would undermine the war effort, which should be directed to preserving the union, not ending slavery. Moving quickly on civil rights would result in a backlash and trample on the principle of free association. Calling the Soviet Union “evil” was provocative, simplistic, and counterproductive.
Yet in each of these cases, the critics are remembered in footnotes. Those who called America to moral ideals and duties have proven to be more realistic in their assessment of America’s true, long-term interests. Particularly in dark moments of doubt and uncertainty, a stubborn, confident idealism has often illuminated an unsuspected path, shown a better way. Far from being impractical or unrealistic, it often has broken a spell of discouragement and resulted in achievements beyond the dreams of realism. In these historical tests, Americans learned, or should have learned, some lessons. America is ultimately stronger when it is faithful to its ideals, even at a cost. Our nation, over time, is more secure when our values advance in the world. And sometimes in history, the greatest need is simple courage in a good cause.
Asserting high ideals always opens up a gap between rhetoric and reality, which makes it easy to criticize idealistic leaders as hypocrites. The Declaration of Independence is an empty promise, because its author and many who signed it owned slaves. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are hypocritical, because America entered into an alliance with Stalin against Hitler. The goal of ending tyranny in our world is a fraud, because we maintain relations with Saudi Arabia. But this argument itself is dreamy and unrealistic. Leadership in politics often consists of maintaining ideals in the midst of inconsistency. G. K. Chesterton wrote of Abraham Lincoln: “He loved to repeat that slavery was intolerable while he tolerated it, and to prove that something ought to be done while it was impossible to do it. … But, for all that, this inconsistency beat the politicians at their own game, and this abstracted logic proved most practical after all. For, when the chance did come to do something, there was no doubt about the thing to be done. The thunderbolt fell from the clear heights of heaven.”
This is the irreplaceable contribution of idealism: When the chance comes to do something, it leaves no doubt about the thing to be done. It holds the great ideals as a sacred trust, to be drawn upon in saner, more hopeful days. And sometimes, even in a tired time, even when the arguments against idealism have piled up in mountains, a thunderbolt can fall from the clear heights of heaven. Suddenly, against all the expectations of realism, the Emancipation Proclamation is signed, a death camp is liberated, the Civil Rights Act is passed, a hated wall falls, a dissident is elected president, an African child cold with death comes back to life.
We have begun our own large, uncertain historical project—a struggle against totalitarian perversions of Islam, a conflict elevated to the highest historical stakes by the spread of destructive technology. We face the central, continuing challenge of American history: to overcome the racial divisions that scarred our founding. And we have entered our own moment of doubt and uncertainty about the course ahead.
The upcoming political season is likely to be polarized and shrill. But it will have this virtue: the arguments will not be minor or small. Politicians will be debating the role of America in the world: Should we persist or retreat in the Middle East? Promote democracy or a narrower version of stability? Confront Iran, or engage Iran? And the arguments of the new season will also concern the role of government in our society: Is it time for cuts, or new exertions? Will conservatism return to a philosophy of “government is the problem” and “leave us alone”?
Beneath all these arguments is a single debate—now the main controversy of American politics—between idealism and cynicism, between ambition and retrenchment, between conviction and doubt.
I believe, as at other historical moments of testing, that America needs a renewal of courage and idealism in the cause of human dignity.
This approach, in my view, must be conservative. The defense and fulfillment of American values such as liberty, tolerance, and equality requires moral and religious confidence in those values, and a commitment to preserve the institutions that shape them. I am a conservative, because I believe in the accumulated wisdom of humanity—a kind of democracy that gives a vote to the dead—expressed in the institutions and moral ideals we inherit from the past. When those ideals and institutions are casually discarded in the cause of personal liberation, the result is usually personal suffering and social decay. We cannot prosper as a “cut-flower civilization”—separated from our sustaining roots.
But this preference for the old and settled, at key historical moments, is radically incomplete. It is a fact of history that many conservatives opposed the abolition of slavery as a form of radicalism, and preferred the settled cultural traditions of the South. Many opposed government-mandated improvements in working conditions in the nineteenth century, fearful of interference in the market. Many opposed the civil-rights movement in the twentieth century as disruptive and revolutionary. In the absence of moral and religious convictions about human dignity, conservatism can become a tired and cynical defense of the status quo. In these cases, the habit of conservatism, disconnected from a moral vision of human rights, became a source of injustice—as it can become today.
The care of our times requires something more: a belief that the interests of America are served by the hope and progress of people in other lands, and a sense of urgency in the cause of social justice at home. This kind of daring and activism is very different from the world-weary conservatism of Europe, with its distrust of philosophic abstraction, its disdain for religious enthusiasm, its belief that tradition trumps moral conviction. This approach challenges a Republican orthodoxy that is often unmoved by poverty and unwelcoming to the immigrant. And it broadens beyond the narrow passions of the Religious Right, recognizing that the Scriptures put far more emphasis on serving the poor and defenseless than on judging the behavior of our neighbors.
What we need is a heroic conservatism: a commitment to changeless ideals—which, when confidently applied, are a force for revolutionary change in our nation and the world. For me, the roots of a heroic conservatism are found in Abraham Lincoln, who was willing to risk bloody war rather than abandon the universal moral claims at the heart of the American experiment. Those roots are found in the tradition of Christian reflection on politics and government, embodied in Roman Catholic social teaching: a conservative respect for the institutions of family and community, paired with a radical, uncompromising concern for the poor and weak. The roots of heroic conservatism are also found in America’s long history of religiously inspired reform movements—the work of morally passionate malcontents who pushed for abolition, insisted on the reform of prisons and mental hospitals, and led the struggle for women’s rights and civil rights. This is an eclectic vision, but a very American one. All these strains of political thought are united by a moral conviction: that every human being has a worth independent of their background or accomplishments; that the least have the same value as the great. This belief, in America, can seem commonplace. It is actually the most revolutionary principle in human history: unleashed in Judaism, carried by Christianity, affirmed by the American Founding, contested by violence across the world. Its claims are universal, and thus inherently missionary. Every ideology that opposes it should fail. Every ruler who assaults it should fall. Every person who affirms it for themselves will be offended when it is denied to others.
How should this principle be applied in our time? What would a politics look like that consistently put the demands of human dignity—the conviction that everyone is a child of God—at its center? Beyond the millions dying of AIDS, what acts of compassion and justice would we owe to the betrayed and hopeless children of America’s inner cities? To the Egyptian dissident imprisoned on trumped-up charges? To the refugee fleeing genocide in Sudan? To the severely handicapped child, dismissed as a worthless burden?
In the pages that follow, I will address those questions. But I will begin by looking at the lessons and cautions of my time in government—a period in which idealism has been asserted and debated in unprecedented ways. It is not, needless to say, a story of unqualified success. Politics is never the story of utopia achieved. It is always the story of flawed men and women with high ideals, rushed toward thousands of decisions they cannot fully understand. And some of those decisions are invariably mistaken.
Yet, given our historical challenges, an adolescent disillusionment is an unaffordable luxury. It is easy for idealism to slip into arrogance—a sense of superiority to a world that never achieves our own standards of purity. But this is a misunderstanding of politics and of life. No one said the great causes would be easy. History proves the opposite. Many reformers and heroes of conscience subsist for their whole lives on promises of change they never see fulfilled. Many generations die in chains before one generation breaks them. Setbacks should neither surprise nor discourage us. And it would be a pathetic kind of idealism that allowed those setbacks to undermine our commitments to justice and liberty.
In the White House, I was sometimes discouraged and frustrated, but never disillusioned. In bitter political campaigns, in a White House at war, in visits with dissidents, in tense foreign capitals, in remote African villages, I have seen reasons for hope instead of cynicism—and the emerging outlines of a better kind of politics, waiting to be born.