A Tribute to a Late Pope - a Genuine Compassionate Conservative - Ripped Off for a Campaign Slogan...
By Margie Burns on 7/25/2007, 5:39am PT  

Guest blogged from DC by Margie Burns

(NOTE: Margie will appear on today's Peter B. Collins Show as Guest Hosted by Brad Friedman, to discuss this article.)

Team Bush began describing candidate George W. Bush as a “compassionate conservative” in 1998, when Bush began his open run for president, as opposed to the behind-the-scenes operation that had begun with his first run for governor of Texas in 1994. By the time the 2000 presidential campaign was in full swing, probably every American with a television had heard the label. In fact, as the actual election approached, the Bush campaign often took to preferring “reformer with results” --- reacting to a margin of diminishing returns for “compassionate conservative.”

Where did they get the “compassionate conservative” label? Hardly anyone would remember or notice in 1998, but the New York Times had run it front-page on August 7, 1978, when Pope Paul VI died and the Times ran his photograph, captioned prominently as a “Compassionate Conservative,” above the fold. Originally the phrase was a genuine tribute to honor a man who by all accounts deserved it (see below). Its recycling by the Bush campaign was a tactic designed to help Bush seem ‘centrist.’

But a 1978 issue of the Times was not the first step in resurrecting "compassionate conservative" as a campaign slogan...

The Seventies with all their dead celebrities were long gone by the time Bush’s Pioneers – supporters who could bundle campaign contributions of at least $100,000 apiece for the election – were influencing the corporate media to lend candidate Bush attention, credibility, and an aura of inevitability as some of the same entities are now doing for Mrs. Clinton. Someone visited a library – and remember, personnel from the Bush White House do not necessarily often see the inside of a library – and stumbled across the perfect amalgam of phony heart and genuine imposition to serve as a fig leaf for the press, enabling it to pretend that George Walker Bush was a credible candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Library research is always partly a kind of detective work, including what used to be called ‘oppo research’ – investigating an opposition candidate – and anticipatory research, investigating your own guy to pre-empt or to guard against anything the other side might turn up, like for instance checking out Bush’s numerous relatives in business and politics. The original source for this particular "compassionate conservative" legend was not the New York Times newspaper but an older library reference work titled The New York Times Obituaries Index, 1969-1978.

In the reference book, the reader finds among other obits the Paul VI entry, pages 148-150, including the article pulled from the front page titled “Compassionate Conservative.”

The phrase “compassionate conservative”? – from a campaign POV, perfect: sonorous but meaningless, nothing the candidate could be pinned down on. Ostensibly ‘centrist,’ without actually stating any two goals that would be balanced, much less achieved. No promises on policy; only a vague nod to a superficial tone of temperance. No one hearing the phrase “compassionate conservative” ad nauseam could suspect that the man wearing this label had designs on Iraq and its 30 years' worth of mineral resources, just sufficient to shore up the positions of Fortune-500 CEOs for the rest of Bush's public lifetime. How better to distract from Ralph Nader’s dismissal of candidate Bush as basically “a group of corporations running as a man.”

That the late pontiff might not have appreciated having his legacy pillaged by Team Bush seems not to have slowed them down.Paul VI was admired for, among other things, repeatedly calling for peace in Vietnam, creating a presence for the church in moral judgments of international affairs, breaking new ground in establishing relationships between Christians and non-Christians, and showing by example a concern for working people. His version of compassionate conservatism is summed up in the Times as follows:

He was a progressive exponent of human rights, a position that contrasted with his conservatism on church doctrine. He appealed for commitment to conventional Catholic principles as ardently as he championed the cause of the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.

Born Giovanni Battista Montini, the pope had a complex career that still presents some apparently unanswered questions about his dealings in international relations during World War II, but he was undeniably a premier example of local boy who makes good – a genuinely brilliant mind from the provinces who worked his way up into the biggest of red-hat big leagues, if you look at it that way. A nice-looking young man, too, in case that matters.

Even in ironic times, it is hideously ironic that Montini’s image could be appropriated to characterize the 1999-2000 ersatz narrative of George W. Bush as boy-from-the-provinces. Genuinely undereducated though the younger George Bush may have been, he was still the kind of guy who when he was living in Texas (for very few of his growing-up years) would wear sockless loafers, yuppie style; and who, when he moved to New England and Yale, would wear cowboy boots and indulge in chewing tobacco, kicker style. The common denominator or guiding principle here, often connected with substance abuse, is --- always shift to terrain where your competition is easier.

The index pages of the reference book shows among the departed within the same time frame George Herbert Walker, Jr. (1905?-1977), original investor and sponsor of the New York Mets; later head of the Yale Baseball Committee and member of Yale’s Board of Athletic Control; and cousin of George H. W. Bush, who had been named after Walker's father. For 38 years, Walker was senior partner of G. H. Walker & Co., the financial firm that gave the elder Bush a leg up in life; when Walker Co. merged in 1974 with Wall Street investment firm White, Weld, & Co, Walker became a director there also. The company has more recently been named Merrill Lynch White Weld. Other Walker connections included the Walker-Bush Oil Corporation and Zapata Petroleum, G. H. W. Bush’s company. Walker’s son George Herbert Walker III, named to an ambassadorship by Bush 43 and a Bush Pioneer, also turns up in numerous corporate connections as well as in public records when sued by his first wife over child support. Walker is also a millionaire.

Little to none of the above information was reported during the 2000 election campaign by either the New York Times or the Washington Post, by the way. The ‘meat grinder’ must have been turned off that year, while Warren Buffett --- the WashPost's biggest investor --- was working and networking to help Bush, and Bush's so-called 'education reforms' were set to enrich Kaplan Learning, the testing and test-prepping conglomerate in the Washington Post Company's education sector.

The White House operatives who came up with “compassionate conservative” not only did not invent their own slogan, they found it in the course of doing anticipatory oppo research on some of the convoluted Bush family connections in the world of finance that got their man into office. In retrospect, it seems a pity that no senior prelate in the Catholic Church happened to remember or to recognize the source of the hand-me-down. Better information might have led to some enlightened skepticism in press and public alike, about Bush’s claims to be either compassionate or particularly conservative, or for that matter a “uniter,” etc.

But then, in retrospect it seems a tragedy not only that the horrible pattern of sexual molesting of children in the church happened at all, and not only that it was so cruelly denied and covered up for so long, but also that it was finally exposed only just in time to keep the church from being a moral force to prevent the Iraq war.