McClaughry Memoir: The Thousand Points of Light

by John McClaughry on January 3, 2014 · 2 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

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The following is the final installment of John McClaughry’s memoir, Promoting Civil Society Among the Heathen.  See the previous chapter here.

8. George H.W. Bush and the Thousand Points of Light

Inheriting the Republican nomination in 1988, vice president  George H.W. Bush in his acceptance speech likened America’s clubs and volunteer organizations to “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”  Near the end of his speech he affirmed that he would “keep America moving forward, always forward—for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”

Bush expanded on the metaphor in his 1989 inaugural address:

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

Since I had nothing to with this idea, this is not the place to recite its development and implementation. Suffice it to say that whatever its merits, it bore considerable resemblance to the C-Flag awards program, where worthy programs received awards and commendations. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s a far cry from a concerted effort to knock down the government-erected barriers and impediments that defeat so many grassroots efforts for community improvement.

My only contact with “Points of Light” occurred when I found myself in the EOB early in 1989, and dropped in on the newly appointed Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of National Service, C. Gregg Petersmeyer.

Petersmeyer (Harvard, Oxford, Harvard Business School) was smartly dressed, friendly, sincere and enthusiastic about his new role (he had come from McKinsey & Co. and an oil and gas company in Denver).

In a few minutes I had ascertained that his concept of that role was to organize the power and majesty of the White House to bestow tributes upon the (politically acceptable) volunteers and organizations working for good causes. I have never had any problem with that, but I was struck by the lofty circles in which Petersmeyer travelled, dealing with captains of industry, political leaders, universities, philanthropists, and the civically committed – quite possibly to the exclusion of any working class, blue collar and minority activists trying to stop the government from driving a freeway through their traditional St. Louis Italian neighborhood.

A month later (June 15, 1989) I sent Petersmeyer a memo in which I pretty much summarized my previous 24 years of experience with this issue:

Enclosed is an assortment of materials from various Republican White House voluntary action efforts. Much of this may be only of historical interest, but I have always found it useful to get some idea of what was attempted in the past before marching bravely into the future.

Let me try to capsulize some accumulated wisdom from my four trips around this track.

1.         “Voluntary Action/Private Sector Initiatives” (or whatever it is labeled) means different things to different people. To oversimplify:

a)     Well-meaning Republicans favor a typically upper middle class view: those who have should take up a collection for those who don’t. The collection finances Christmas turkeys and other benefits. This is the “Lady Bountiful” approach: the gift can be given and the recipients forgotten. Republican voluntary action efforts have been plagued with this myopic perspective. Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community, and are uncomfortable with spontaneous grassroots efforts which seem to them to be potentially subversive of the existing order, of which they general approve.

b)      Liberals tend to think of using tax dollars to finance institutions to assist the poor, thereby  making themselves feel good while sending the bill to an otherwise uncaring “society” through taxes. This attitude gives rise to the “welfare-industrial complex”, with the government financing an elaborate institutional structure which employs liberals to take care of the poor. The idea that their tax-financed institutions as often as not defeat the self-help efforts of the poor rarely if ever occurs to liberals.

c)     People at the grassroots, faced with collective problems, usually want the tools,    resources and opportunities to solve their problem themselves. They almost invariably view government and other institutions as part of the problem (usually true) and hate paying taxes to finance their oppressors and pay for programs which don’t really do them any good. They lean Democratic because of income and class characteristics, but will vote Republican when the right candidate comes along who speaks their language.

2. Despite good intentions, Republican Administrations have never been able to speak effectively to the self help groups at the grassroots. Republican cultural attitudes have proven to be a barrier, and grassroots self-helpers are not generally Republican oriented politically, because they have been taught (by liberals) to view Republican Administrations as the instruments of upper class, high income, corporate America which doesn’t care about the poor and needy. An examination of the people appointed by the Reagan White House to address this issue reveals a long list of successful business people, contributors, and cronies who needed Presidential appointments, but almost never anyone who has this genuine grassroots self-help perspective. (On the 39 member PACPSI, only four had real self-help experience, and two of them weren’t Republicans.) None of the three staff Reagan leaders (Coyne, Rosebush, and Ryan) understood this, and each had his own personal agenda which was not quite the same as the President’s direction.

3. Accordingly, Republican voluntary action efforts have generally deteriorated into presenting awards and Presidential photo opportunities to corporations (“C Flag”) and individuals who performed some notable service. In my view, a far more productive approach (not mutually exclusive) would be to

a)      ascertain – very specifically, by listening to the victims – the specific barriers to organized grassroots self help caused by government laws, regulations, and practices at all levels. (Much of this has been done.)

b)      design a White House led effort to reduce or eliminate those barriers through Cabinet officers and state and local officials.

4. IMPORTANT: Almost every “barrier” was put there for a reason. Trying to eliminate barriers to self help is not cost-free. Some interest or institution will oppose almost every proposal of any merit. Cabinet officers will not want to do more than lip” service because serious efforts involve the expenditure of political and administrative capital they would much prefer to use in areas of greater concern (and benefit) to them.

5. Your Office needs to decide whether the President

a)   will be content with rhetorical tributes to voluntary action, coupled with  the usual awards, White House recognition ceremonies, photo opportunities, etc.,

b)    first understands, and second, has a commitment to addressing,  the barrier problem even if it involves some political capital and White House staff leadership.

If (b), then you need to put this effort on a firm footing conceptually and design a step by step means for dealing with it. I can be very helpful with that part of it, (having seen it go wrong so many times); but it is not worth fooling around with unless the President understands and approves. For you to get into the barrier reduction without the President’s clear understanding and blessing is for you to call down much grief upon yourself with little chance of a payoff.

Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again.

9. George W. Bush’s Faith Based and Community Initiatives

George W. Bush took office in 2001 as the nation’s “compassionate conservative.”  When he (finally) won the election, work fitfully began on the Office of Faith-Based Action that he had promised to various religious groups during the campaign.

The story of what appeared as White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been told in an interesting memoir by its first deputy director David Kuo, an intensely dedicated Christian constantly trying to blend the demands of Christian faith with the often sordid realities of national politics (Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, 2006).

Without going into the details, Kuo’s account of the origin of the Office and the program it was supposed to promote spells out the confusions, staff politics, competing priorities, personalities and hypocrisies that abound in any such place.

On February 13 I had paid a visit to Don Eberly, a long time promoter of community initiatives, character, virtue, and civil society who later served as deputy director of OFBCI. After that meeting (described in the following memo) I sent a memo to Bush major domo Karl Rove offering my first and only thoughts on then still-inchoate Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program. I had known Karl years before, when he edited the College Republican journal, and he at least occasionally gave me to believe that he was paying attention to what I modestly termed my “indispensable advice”, as follows:

Topic: Faith-Based and Community Initiatives                                   March 20, 2001

First, let me make it clear that the directorship of this office is NOT a position I ever
wanted and wouldn’t accept if offered then or now. My concept of what needs to be done
in this area is considerably different from “Faith-Based and Community Activities” as it
has emerged. I am also 600 miles away and have essentially no inside knowledge of how
this is progressing. Nonetheless you may find the following observations of interest.

1. Shift in Concept: Originally W & Co. lamented that faith-based organizations seemed to be excluded from public assistance programs because of their spiritual basis. Very true. But some time ago the focus shifted to the proposition that faith-based organizations should be a major conduit for public funds to assist the poor, stimulated by White House interest and muscle. This is not the same thing. This is the difference between ending racial discrimination and demanding racial preferences.

2. Unfortunate Choice of Title: What you call things influences how people think about
things. By naming the office “Faith-Based and Community Initiatives”, in that order, you
have affirmed the shift of focus. Now the focus appears to be feeding faith-based
constituencies, instead of ending discrimination.

3. Conflicts within the Faith-Based Community: From press reports there seems to be
considerable conflict within the faith based community. (Cf. the Washington Post article
of 3/12). Various parts of this community fear that forced secularization of their message
is the price of participation. They are also concerned about the Presidential legitimization of “cults” (Moonies, Scientologists, Nation of Islam, Branch Davidians, who know what else). This latter point threatens to initiate a religious war over government certification of “correct” faith-based groups. Is W going to hand out money to the Moonies to love-bomb homeless kids on the streets of New York? Why not? The Moonies do give rootless strays a “family” to belong to.

4. Your Choice of Director: I am familiar with [John] DiIulio’s writings on crime, which are valuable. I have never met him or had any connection with him. But from people who have, and his public actions so far, I surmise you may have a problem.

a) DiIulio has been described to me as s tough kid from South Philly. What I see
is a pugnacious urban Italian Catholic: a guy whose culture rewards brash, belligerent,
posturing behavior backed up my muscle where necessary. Just looking at his photo in
the paper makes me nervous. This guy looks to me like an anti-diplomat.

b) His reported insistence that “Faith- Based” precede “Community” in his title
reinforces the shift of focus that I think was a mistake.

c) His early public criticism of W’s proposal to end the estate tax was to me a
serious breach of solidarity with the W team and program. Further, it may reflect a
cultural-political bias in favor of the government bringing down the rich. (I am told
DiIulio is a lifelong Democrat.)

d) I don’t know how intense a Catholic he is, but if he is a devout product of an
Italian parochial school, when dealing with leaders of other faiths he may have a hard
time concealing a belief that Protestants are heretics, and the Jews murdered Jesus. As
Don Rumsfeld once remarked, when running Nixon’s Cost of Living Council, “There are
two kinds of people we don’t hire here – people who believe in price controls, and people
who don’t.” Having a doctrinaire Catholic (or anything else running this office) may lead
to the problem that Rumsfeld wanted to avoid in that ill-begotten venture.

In sum, I am concerned that DiIulio and this effort will become an increasingly
sticky problem for you, rather than a shining opportunity. If it does get sticky, you might
want to consider a Presidential Commission to sort things out for a year (and deflect
controversy away from the WH).

5. Charity v. Self-Help: When I met with Don Eberly 2/13 I pushed as hard as I could
for a self-help focus, especially removing the barriers to citizen action for mutual benefit. However I am not encouraged to hope that such a focus will be chosen. The focus seems to be on well-motivated religionists delivering compassion, sacred scripture, and a square meal to sinners and strays. Nothing wrong with that – I give money to the Salvation Army every year. But the real opportunity – both in terms of giving hope and the power of progress to poor communities, and crassly, for W’s political benefit – does not lie so much in rescuing afflicted individuals one by one and gathering them into the bosom of the church. It lies in giving the people of poor urban and rural communities a fair chance, with modest resources, to work together to improve both their individual prospects and their communities. That is not where this initiative seems to be headed.

To make this distinction more vivid: Imagine a) W walking through a crowd of
cheering folks at a community center built through their efforts to renew their
neighborhood under the own leadership, thanks to obstacles swept away and cooperation
with public and private sectors engendered through W’s commitment and leadership; and
b) W meeting with a dozen recovered alcoholics at a church mission, and listening to
them tell how they gave up the bottle and found Jesus (Mohammed, Vishnu, etc.) and are now gainfully employed at the used furniture warehouse.

This is a fundamental question of policy direction. Nixon wanted to create several thousand wealthy blacks who would endorse Nixon. Reagan really believed in removing obstacles to self-help and mutual aid, but none of the upper class Wasps on his staff had any conception of that. They wanted photo ops of corporate CEOs making contributions to United Way, Bush père gave out “Points of Light” certificates. W wants to get faith-based groups to rescue strays. Aside from Nixon’s cynical effort, there is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. It just fails to seize the big opportunity.

Karl did not of course reply to this, but John DiIulio’s six month tenure was, as Kuo reported, fraught with confusion and controversy. As Kuo also dejectedly reported, before long the whole effort slid into the trough of Washington politics, appearing to friend and foe alike to be the Bush White House control center for a new smorgasbord of government grants to faith-based entities of every description.

“I watched”,  Kuo wrote, “as George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ that promised to ‘restore hope for all Americans’ was repeatedly stiff-armed by his own White House staff, and then preened to look good for the religiously inclined and for ‘nontraditional’ (black and Hispanic) Republican voters.”

I’m not passing judgment on Bush’s faith-based and community initiative effort. I am convinced – from a meeting I had with him in 1994 – that Bush was absolutely sincere in wanting to facilitate compassionate assistance to the needy through faith-based groups. I do conclude, watching it from afar,  that not nearly enough attention was paid to exactly what was to be promoted, at whose expense, and over whose opposition.

On January 30, 2003 Bush appointed yet another “President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation”. The role of the Council, the president said, was “to convince our fellow citizens to love one another…[and] to devise practical ways to encourage others to serve.”

To his credit, Bush did name to this 24 member body perhaps a dozen people with hands-on experience in serving the poor, although from their biographies it does not appear than any appointees personally led self help efforts among the people of poor communities. The Council was directed to cooperate with and make recommendations “from time to time” to the CEO of the Corporation on National and Community Service. No report was mandated.

10. Lessons Learned

 If our goal is to promote a rebirth of America’s civil society through the shaping of perceptions, the reorienting of  culture, and the expansion of opportunity for civil society to flourish, my experience leads to at least these conclusions.

  1. Like-minded people, of varying backgrounds, faiths and political persuasions need to constitute a nucleus of advocacy: a center for research, exchange of ideas, linkages, recruitment, and cultural expression. To borrow from our adversaries, we need a non-political Leninist vanguard coupled with a Gramscian strategy to march through the institutions under the banner of civil society. Such a nucleus can play a valuable role backing up and opening opportunities for the activists we have in the field. The Bradley Center at the Hudson Institute seems admirably positioned to play this role.
  2. The project needs to mount a campaign to influence popular culture and belief, through various means designed to instill the civil society paradigm in religion, academe, business, politics, and civic organizations.
  3. The project needs to draw attention to examples of successful programs and leaders, much as the Hobbs’ task force did with welfare reform groups; making use of media, awards, prestige visits, and the like – and keeping track of the best examples.
  4. The project needs to offer insight, influence and expertise to help promising civil society programs work, in a useful format, and to maintain useful networks in support of similar projects, whereby all can learn and grow.
  5. The project needs to persuade political leaders to get bad government off the backs of people yearning to be free. The need is not for more taxpayer-financed slop in the trough, but for breaking through the accumulated web of government rules, regulations, mandates, organized interests, and policies that all too often emasculate or defeat citizen action. (Morgan Doughton’s PeoplePower contains numerous pathetic examples of government, accidentally or by design, stifling worthwhile civil society initiatives; so does the little noticed NCN Obstacles report of 1979.)

Appendix I: Some Heroes of Civil Society Thought (representative works)

Herbert Agar (Land of the Free, 1935)

Peter Berger & Richard John Neuhaus (To Empower People, 1977)

Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

Richard Douthwaite (Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World, 1996)

Robert Nisbet (The Quest for Community, 1953)

Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities,1961)

Thomas Jefferson (letters)

Petr Kropotkin (Fields Factories and Workshops, 1912)

Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion, 1992)

Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000)

Wilhelm Roepke (The Moral Foundations of Civil Society, 1948)

E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1973)

Henry Calvert Simons (A Political Credo, 1948)

Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, 1835)

Appendix II: Some Contemporary Heroes of Civil Society (that I have known)

Gar Alperovitz

Geno Baroni

David Beito

Jeff Bercuvitz

Frank Bryan

Stuart Butler

Allan Carlson

Richard Cornuelle

Morgan J. Doughton

Don Eberly

Amitai Etzioni

Stephen Goldsmith

Gerson Green

Peter Hannaford

T. George Harris

Robert B. Hawkins Jr.

Chuck Hobbs

Michael Joyce

Bill Kauffman

Jack Kemp

Myron Kuropas

Milton Kotler

Norman Krumholz

George Liebmann

John McKnight

Alex Mercure

Michael Novak

Jim Pinkerton

George Romney

Kirkpatrick Sale

William Schambra

Michael Shuman

Leon Sullivan

Bob Swann/Susan Witt

Robert Woodson Sr.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar CJ Wolfe January 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm

The “Thousand Points of Light” phrase originally appeared as a similar phrase in a speech by Ronald Reagan (I know the speechwriter; contrary to what some have written it was not Peggy Noonan, but she repeated it and took credit for it). When Reagan said it, the live polling of the speech showed that the audience really liked the phrase. So, Reagan’s speechwriters put that phrase in their pocket and decided to use it for a special occasion- Bush’s speech at the 1988 convention and the 1989 inauguration. It’s a catchy phrase, and Bush’s connection of the phrase to the idea of community organizations spread throughout the Nation I can only see as a good thing

avatar John McClaughry January 4, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I would be very interested in knowing exactly when and where Reagan used that phrase.

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