When I first heard that President Bush was vowing to veto a bipartisan bill to expand child health care, my immediate thought was more personal than political. What has happened to him, I wondered. Now that he has followed through on his threat, I can't help but think about the first time we met and the conversation we had about children.
Just one day after Bush secured his election in December 2000, I received a phone call inviting me to Austin to meet with him and a small group of religious leaders. The President-elect wanted to discuss his oft-stated passion for really tackling the persistent problem of poverty and to tell us about his vision for "faith-based initiatives." I had not voted for George W. Bush, and that fact was no secret to him or his staff. But he reached out to me, and to others in the faith community across the political spectrum, because we shared a common concern. I was impressed by that, and by the topic of gathering down in Austin.
Those of us who had been summoned to Texas filed into a little Sunday School classroom at First Baptist, Austin, where we would meet with Bush. I had preached at the church before and knew the pastor, who told me how puzzled he was that his quite "progressive" church was chosen for the meeting. Inside the classroom, 25 of us were seated in chairs, chatting and not knowing what to expect, when Bush walked in without any great introduction. He took a seat and told us that he just wanted to listen to our concerns, to hear what we thought the solutions were for dealing with poverty in America.
And he really did listen, more than Presidents often do. He also asked questions. One sounded lofty, yet it resonated with those of us seated around the room: "How do I speak to the soul of America?" My answer to that was simple: Focus on the children. Their plight is our shame, I told him, and their promise is our future. Reach them and you reach our soul. Bush nodded in agreement. The conversation was rich and deep for more than an hour and a half.
When the discussion officially ended, Bush moved around the room, talking with us individually or in small groups for another hour. I could see that his staff was anxious to whisk him away (Cabinet appointments were being made that week and there were key departments yet to fill). Yet he lingered and continued to ask questions. At one point, he turned to me and said, with what I could only read as complete sincerity, "Jim, I don't understand poor people. I've never lived with poor people or been around poor people much. I don't understand what they think and feel about a lot of things. I'm just a white Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it?"
I still recall the intense and earnest look on his face as he stared right into my eyes and asked his question. It was a moment of humility and candor that, frankly, we don't often see with Presidents.
My response to President-elect Bush was born of my own experience. He should, I suggested, listen to poor people themselves, and pay attention to those who live and work with the poor. Again, he nodded his head; again, he seemed to agree. When I returned home, I told my wife Joy, also a clergyperson, about our conversation. Weeks later, we listened together to President Bush's first inaugural address. When he said, "America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault... Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do," my wife poked me in the ribs and smiled.
Bush talked more about poverty in that inaugural address than any President had for a long time. When I said so in a newspaper column soon after, my Democratic friends were not pleased. Nor did they like the fact that I started attending meetings at the White House with the President and members of his staff about how to best construct a "faith-based initiative." Other friends of mine, however, were appointed to lead and staff the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the first the White House had ever seen. We brought many delegations of religious leaders conservative, liberal, and everything in between to meet with the men and women who ran that office. Many of us dared hope that something new might be in the air.
But that was a long time ago. We don't hear much about that office or initiative anymore. Most of my friends have long left. I don't hear about meetings now. The phrase "compassionate conservatism" rarely passes the lips of anyone at the White House these days.
And now, the President has vetoed a bipartisan measure to expand health insurance for low-income children. Most of his expressed objections to the bill have been vigorously refuted by Republican Senators who helped craft the legislation. Members of his own party have vowed to lobby their colleagues in an effort to override the veto. During his first presidential campaign, Bush chided conservative House Republicans for spending cuts accomplished on the backs of the poor. Now congressional Republicans are chiding him.
What happened to this President? The money needed for expanding health care to poor children in America is far less than the money that has been lost and wasted on corruption in Iraq. How have the priorities strayed so far from those children, whom he once agreed were so central to the soul of the nation? What do they need to do to get the President's attention again?
The faithful of all creeds and political affiliations barraged the White House last week, imploring the President to reconsider his veto threat. Our efforts did not bear fruit. But I wonder if, before he put his veto stamp on that legislation, the President thought back to that little meeting in a Baptist Sunday school classroom, not far from where he grew up. I wonder if he remembered that day, what we talked about, what was in his heart, and how much hope there was in the room. If he knows his Bible, the President should remember that Jesus said to suffer the little children. This, however, isn't exactly what he meant.
Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners and the author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It